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October 10, 2008

Clash of the AL East Titans

Rays versus Red Sox

by Joe Sheehan

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I'll make the same statement I made at the top of my NLCS preview: I have no idea who will win this series. The teams are evenly matched, they played almost to a draw in 18 regular-season matchups, they share similar strengths and weaknesses, and they have good managers who are unlikely to make key mistakes. The teams had the two best third-order winning percentages in baseball. There's not a lot to choose between them.

As you dig down, though, you see small edges, ones that could make the difference in the short series, or at least ones that make it easier to pick one or the other as the deadline to do that sort of thing approaches. The problem is that every time you identify one, a "but" jumps up to render the point, if not mooted, at least muted.

The Red Sox have a better defense than the Rays do. Raw Defensive Efficiency famously shows that the Rays went from the worst defense on record in 2007 to the best in baseball in 2008. That improvement was by design, the result of a series of decisions, beginning in May of 2007, that prioritized putting a better defense on the field in hopes of improving the team's run prevention and supporting a young pitching staff. It worked beautifully.

When you account for park, however, using James Click's PADE system (now tracked by BP in our sortable stats), you find that the Sox, and not the Rays, were the best-fielding team in the AL, second only to the Cubs in MLB. The Rays were third, but the gap between the Sox and the Rays is larger than that between the Rays and the team in eighth place. The Red Sox are better at turning balls in play into outs

But… The Red Sox are coming into the ALCS out of alignment. Rather than having top-tier defenders Mike Lowell at third and Kevin Youkilis at first, the Sox have to work around Lowell's disabling hip injury, and have moved Youkilis back to his original position at third and are using Mark Kotsay at first. The effect is less defense at both corner spots, and although quantifying the effect of this over a short span of games is difficult, it's clear that the Boston's defensive edge over Tampa Bay takes a hit.

The Red Sox have more power than the Rays do. The Sox slugged .447, the Rays .422, and the Sox had an isolated power five points higher with 58 more extra-base hits than the Rays had. Those edges held on the road as well, with the Sox outslugging and posting a higher ISO than the Rays.

But… The Rays and Sox are about even when it comes to hitting home runs, which may be the more important skill in this series. The Sox's slugging edge is almost entirely due to the doubles they hit-353, a whopping 69 more than the Rays knocked, and a figure inflated by the Green Monster. The Sox hit 180 homers, the Rays 173. Not only does playing away from Fenway make a difference, but a strong outfield defense will as well. In fact, because both of these teams are so good at taking away hits, the ability to score quickly, to get two or three runs on one swing-a long ball-will be critical to each team's offense. Long sequences of hits won't be likely, and the two teams have similar home-run power.

The Rays have the home-field advantage, and both of these teams were mediocre away from home. It's just a one-game edge over the next week, but it looks important because you can't dispute that these teams were much different away from home to the tune of 200 points of winning percentage. In the 18 head-to-head games they played, the home team went 15-3, including winning the first 13. An edge that in most seasons would be hand-waved away looks large, in a 1987/1991 Twins kind of way.

But… The current Sox, the ones with Jason Bay in left field, went 15-10 on the road, after posting a 24-32 mark before the trade. It's possible that this has as much to do with scheduling as anything else, or it could be that having Bay, rather than Manny Ramirez, in left fields not backed by a 37-foot wall made the Sox better on the road. This is speculation, but what isn't is the 15-10 mark. In the same way that you have to judge the presently-configured Dodgers apart from their seasonal mark, you probably have to do here as well.

As an aside, there's been a lot of coverage of the Red Sox that points to their play before and after the Ramirez trade. The team went 4-8 between the All-Star break and the trade, then 10-3 in the two weeks immediately following the deal. Without taking a side one way or another, just one point: the 4-8 came against the Angels (0-6), Mariners (3-0), and Yankees (1-2). The 10-3 came against the post-trade deadline A's, Royals, White Sox, and Rangers. In this age of scheduling variance, you have to take into account opponents in any short-term analysis of performance.

I'm vamping at this point. I've had this file open on my desktop for four days, and I'm no closer to a conclusion than I was Monday night. The Rays don't hit lefties…but the Sox have just one lefty starter. The Sox can't expect to get innings from anyone but Jon Lester…but they have three very good relievers to bridge the gap to Jonathan Papelbon. The Rays have better lineup balance than the Angels, making it harder for Francona to use Justin Masterson…well, the Sox can just plug Manny Delcarmen into that spot.

Edges that don't go away? Well, the Rays were second in the AL in walks this season, and the Sox ninth in walks allowed, led by Game One starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. Remember, hits will be hard to come by, so walks could be critical in setting up the multi-run homers that are likely to decide the series. The Rays led the AL in steals, were successful 74 percent of the time, and were 15-for-17 against the Sox. The Sox, who also used the stolen bases effectively this season, were just 14-fo-21 against the Rays.

These teams are going to work counts. They're going to run when they can, intelligently. They're going to turns balls in play into outs. They're probably not going to get a ton of innings from their starters-a combination of the pitchers and the approaches at the plate-making the middle relief important. The keys are going to be when the homers come, not running out of big innings, and that middle and set-up relief.

I'm going to say Red Sox in six, because I think they'll be better in those three areas, on the whole, than the Rays will. They'll draw more walks, have more runners on base and their middle relief will perform better.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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