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October 15, 2008

Prospectus Today

Big Ball

by Joe Sheehan

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Well, no one’s talking about Terry Francona’s tactical missteps any longer.

For the second straight day, and the third straight game, the Rays obliterated a Red Sox starter, scoring five runs off of Tim Wakefield in the first three innings on their way to a 13-4 win that puts them one win away from the World Series. The Rays have now scored 31 runs in the last three games of the series, including 22 in the two games at Fenway Park. Just as a point of comparison, the Rays scored 25 runs all year in nine games at Fenway over three separate trips. They seem to have gotten used to the dirty water.

There’s not a whole lot to analyze. Unlike Monday, when Jon Lester pitched reasonably well outside of a four-batter stretch in the third, Wakefield didn’t last long enough to provide that kind of context. He allowed back-to-back homers in the first to put the Sox down 3-0, then a two-out, two-run bomb in the third to Willy Aybar that, on the heels of an aborted rally in the bottom of the second, effectively ended the game. As Rob Neyer pointed out, this is nothing new for Wakefield, who outside of the 2003 ALCS has been getting hammered in post-season play for a very long time.

It was the wrong night for the Sox to fall behind, as they were facing a pitcher, in Andy Sonnanstine, who is the type to make comebacks difficult. This is speculation to some extent, but I have this notion that giving a pitcher such as Sonnanstine, who lives to get strike one and doesn’t walk people, a multi-run lead early is more valuable than giving that lead to a comparable pitcher with a different approach. The risk in pitching like Sonnanstine or Paul Byrd or others of this ilk is the long ball. Once you change the game to make any individual home run less damaging, you shift things in favor of that type of pitcher. Whereas, say, a Scott Kazmir or Daisuke Matsuzaka might start walking people and give you a chance to get back in the game, with Sonnanstine you’re going to have to hit the ball successfully a bunch of times.

Sonnanstine would give up a homer and a triple for runs, but that was it. He threw just 97 pitches in 7 1/3 innings, about two-thirds of them strikes, and issued just one walk. You could say he was pitching to the score, but he wasn’t: he was pitching like Andy Sonnanstine, and the score was perfect for him.

The Rays are starting to remind me a bit of the 2002 Angels. That Angels team reached the postseason on the strength of very good defense, leading the majors in Defensive Efficiency and PADE. They led the league in runs allowed, and had a good, not great, offense built around hitting for average and being faster than the other guys.

Come the postseason, the Angels, who slugged .433 with a .151 isolated power from April through September, slugged .511 with an ISO of .190. After placing tenth in the league with 152 homers, less than one a game, they hit 24 in 16 October contests. Some of the batting average and slugging average was due to their put-the-ball-in-play philosophy—in the Division Series against the Yankees, they had a batting average on balls in play of .842, including 1.471 in the deciding Game Four (Tim Salmon was credited with two singles while ordering a venti americano in Tustin the morning of the game). However, in a more serious vein it wasn't getting balls in play that made the difference, it was that they increased their long ball output by 50 percent. They didn’t win by playing their game; they won playing big ball.

Now, the Rays weren’t quite the Angels in the regular season. They played great defense and kept the other team off the board, and they stole a lot of bases, yes, but they also hit 180 regular-season homers, good for fourth in the league. But they’ve ramped up even that performance of late. A team that slugged .422 with an ISO of .162 and homered once every 30.8 at-bats all year is slugging .535 with an ISO of .243 and a homer every 18 at-bats in the playoffs. That’s how the Angels won in 2002: by hitting the snot out of the ball for three weeks.

I keep coming back to the central theme of any baseball postseason. The champion isn’t necessarily the best team, but it is almost always the team that plays the best in the short series of October. The Rays aren’t getting "lucky" in any sense other than they’re playing well when playing well has some excellent rewards. The Red Sox aren’t getting "unlucky," other than that they’re playing poorly at the same time. The Rays are playing better baseball, and thanks to that, they’re one win away from something that would have seemed preposterous to all but one man and his trusty CPU seven months ago.

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

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