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October 6, 2009

Prospectus Today

Series Previews

by Joe Sheehan

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I've drawn the major Yankees/Team X ALDS preview, which obviously won't be available until tomorrow morning thanks to the last reminder of why Calvin Griffith was one of the worst owners in sports history. The Twins never needed a new ballpark because of the Metrodome itself-in six months, it will be obvious that they've made a tactical error-but because their lease made them the Vikings' bitches for nearly 30 years. So instead of a one-game playoff coming on the day after the regular season like every one had before, we get it on Tuesday, with the winner getting to celebrate for about nine minutes before starting the Division Series.

The other three matchups are set, and the official previews for those will be up over the next day or so. Today, I'll take a condensed look at each. Remember that the least important line in all of these, and in every postseason series preview you read, is the last one. It's about the analysis, not the prediction.

Phillies/Rockies

There are enough similarities between the 2007 versions of these teams and the ones that take the field tomorrow to consider this a rematch, as more than half of the starting lineups come back. Where the teams are different is even similar, as each features a stronger starting rotation and a weaker bullpen than were present two years ago. The Phillies remain reliant on their left-handed power core, while the Rockies play strong defense behind a ball-in-play staff.

The Rockies won the matchup handily two years ago, sweeping the Phillies in part because they matched up so well with them. See, the Phillies rely heavily on the home run, then and now. This year they batted .286 on balls in play, 14th in the NL. The Rockies defend balls in play very well, ranking fourth in the NL in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and they don't give up home runs, posting the second-highest groundball percentage in the major leagues. They keep the walks down as well; just five NL teams gave out fewer unintentional free passes. By keeping the ball in the park, turning balls in play into outs and limiting walks, the Rockies are a difficult team to score upon.

In 2007, the Phillies hit five home runs in three games, but all were solo shots, and they scored just three runs outside of those homers. If anything, this team seems almost more likely to suffer that fate, as it now has a dysfunctional lineup-a leadoff hitter who posted a .296 OBP-that makes it more likely that homers will come with no one on base and less likely that runs will be scored in other ways. This is a terrible matchup for the Phillies who, even with an improved rotation, may not be able to score enough runs to win. They'll need their starters, which in a postseason featuring fantastic rotations that match up with anyone, to be great if they're to win.

Of course, the potential for trouble scoring runs is just one reason the Phillies need strong starts. Their bullpen is a mess, a mix of injured pitchers, ineffective pitchers, converted starters, and Ryan Madson. While it may not be a disaster-over a week, any bullpen can be good-the potential for late drama in these games will be high. The Rockies' bullpen, which went through a lot of turnover throughout the season, has been effective in its current form. Imports Rafael Betancourt and Joe Beimel have pitched well as Rockies, and rookie Matt Daley was very effective after his call-up. Nevertheless, the late innings of this series are likely to be very interesting, as these are the two least effective pens in the postseason, pending the Tigers' entrance.

Phillies fans love my opinions of Ryan Howard, so let's just reduce the entire discussion to one line: .226/.310/.444 career, .207/.298/.356 in 2009. Jim Tracy has to bring that guy to the plate as often as possible in this series. Any time he allows the other guy, the .307/.409/.661 one, the one who hit .319/.395/.691 this year, to bat in a game-critical situation, he deserves to lose, because that guy is absolutely devastating. It really is that simple. Charlie Manuel isn't going to take Howard out, so if Tracy elects to give up 450 points of OPS in any situation that matters, he's just this side of throwing the game. Tracy is the one manager in this round who can justify carrying an extra relief pitcher, presumably Randy Flores, solely for the purpose of facing one batter. Flores, though a journeyman who threw just 12 innings in the majors this year, would have more use to the team than carrying an extra long man such as Jason Hammel.

I keep coming back to the offensive matchup, and the result of that 2007 series. The two teams played in April and August this year, before and after as far as the Rockies were concerned. In the second series, the Phillies scored 13 runs, hitting five homers and batting .293 on balls in play, so it's not set in stone that they won't score. Still, I think that's the most likely scenario. Rockies in four.

Dodgers/Cardinals

One of the more interesting contrasts in the first round is between a team that concentrates virtually all its positive performance into about six roster spots, and a team that gets production from more than 20. The Cardinals have the best player in baseball, two of the NL's top three pitchers this year, and a few other contibutors. The rest of the roster is unproductive, hardly worthy of mention. The Dodgers won't get many votes on award ballots-Matt Kemp is a mid-ballot MVP candidate, and that's about it-but they have eight above-average players in the lineup, a good bench, and a ridiculously deep bullpen.

Because the postseason tends to be about your front-line talent, the Cardinals are dangerous. They can get a disproportionate number of innings from their good starting pitchers, and they never have to get into their very weak bench, or put their relievers in spots where they may be exposed. If the starters keep the games low-scoring, a big blow from Albert Pujols or Matt Holliday may be enough for a win.

The Dodgers may not have two starters vying for hardware, and they may be a bit confused as to who their better pitchers are-Randy Wolf is not better than Clayton Kershaw-but they can keep teams off the board. Starting two lefties should help against a Cardinals lineup that had a big split this season, although it does expose them to the big right-handed bats in the middle of the lineup. Come the late innings, the Dodgers have a large advantage with a deep and talented bullpen that can strike people out, play matchups, or get a key ground ball.

Ryan Franklin made the All-Star team, racked up 38 saves and ended the year with a 1.92 ERA. To his credit, he has become a groundball pitcher since leaving the AL, which is one reason why he was able to hold the closer role all season. The bigger reason, though, is that he was pretty lucky: despite a 20% line-drive rate and a 45% groundball rate, Franklin allowed just a .269 average on balls in play. Beyond that, he gave up just two homers all season for a HR/FB of 3.2%. The league is around 10%. I'm going to predict that one of the three Cardinals' losses in this series comes when Franklin's luck runs out, and one of the others comes when Kershaw takes his turn. Dodgers in five.

Angels/Red Sox

This is like one of those NBA seasons where the two best teams end up playing in the conference semifinals for no apparent reason. The Angels and Red Sox are probably the second- and third-best teams in baseball, in some order, and one isn't making it to the semis.

Because the teams are so good, I was prepared to call this a toss-up, but the more I looked at the matchup, the more I saw that this is just a bad draw for the Angels. Their rotation is much better than its overall stats now that everyone is healthy, but their top two starters still don't match up with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and their big edge in the #4 and #5 spots is all but mooted in a Division Series. They give up a huge edge in the bullpen, and their vastly improved offense is basically on par with the Sox.

I'm fascinated by what the Angels did this year, completely changing their style of play, essentially on the fly, under the same manager who'd had so much success for a decade. Mike Scioscia will get credit for managing through the death of Nick Adenhart, and the storyline around this team will be tied to their success in the face of tragedy. But it's the on-field story that is much more interesting. The Angels hit more home runs and drew more walks than in any year but Scioscia's first, 2000. They've struck out more than any Scioscia team. They still run second in the AL with 210 stolen-base attempts, but were caught a league-high 62 times and are a slower team than any Angels team since 2000.

To make that kind of adjustment and succeed is rare for any manager, much less one who has been successful and has built an image on playing another style. Scioscia is still trying to be aggressive on the bases, but he has been willing to play guys, such as Kendry Morales, who might not have had a role on his teams in the past. He deserves all the credit in the world for this.

Even though they faced nominal challenges from the Rays and Rangers, there was never really a sense that the Red Sox were in danger of missing the postseason. They played the season almost as a warmup, trying different starting pitchers, different lineups, moving guys around to different roles. The entire bullpen in front of Jonathan Papelbon has been in flux, and the lineup has been a work in progress since the Victor Martinez trade. Starting tomorrow, though, the Sox will be putting their best team on the field, and that team is fantastic. The Sox have a strong lineup, bolstered by Martinez; their defense is better for the acquisition of Alex Gonzalez; Clay Buccholz's strong second half made the rotation deeper; the Billy Wagner trade added a power arm who eats up left-handed batters in a way Hideki Okajima doesn't, and made an already strong bullpen an absolute terror.

The Red Sox may not have kept pace with the Yankees all year, but that never seemed to be the goal. Through all of the panic in Boston over the team's performance, Theo Epstein and Terry Francona always seemed to be planning for October 7. They drew a very difficult assignment, but their edges on the pitching staff are going to be the difference. Red Sox in four.

As far as tonight goes…

Twins/Tigers

Having home-field advantage is an edge for the Twins, who are 101-61 at the Metrodome the past two seasons, including 13-5 against the Tigers. Having Scott Baker available is a help; he's their best active starting pitcher who, after opening the season late with two disaster starts, has nearly a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 starts. The day off probably helps them more than the Tigers, given that they worked their bullpen very hard last week and are a bit more reliant on strong relief pitching.

I want Rick Porcello to weigh against all that, because I think he's going to have an amazing career, be a strikeout/groundball pitcher with command, win awards, battle with Felix Hernandez in the seventh game of an LCS or World Series in a way that we tell our kids about. I'm just not sure he's there yet, and while his results have been fine of late-a 3.00 ERA in his last seven starts-there are so many warning signs that he's exhausted that I can't be confident of his performance tonight. Porcello has just 15 strikeouts in those seven starts, covering 42 innings, and it's not like he's been a groundball machine: 77 grounders, 72 flies, 31 line drives in that time. He has just three strikeouts in his last 17 1/3 innings, walking five men in that time. He's simply putting too many balls in play to survive.

It's one game, and anything can happen. Porcello could give up a lot of at-'em balls and leave allowing one run in seven innings, and the Tigers bullpen could get the job done. Porcello, who also has a great mind for the game, is a 20-year-old pitching deeper into a calendar than he's ever done before, going to the mound with a fraction of the stuff he normally has, and eventually that catches up with you. As a fan, I would like him to have one more big night. As an analyst looking at his recent work, I'm skeptical as to what he has left in the tank. The Twins have the better starter in a place where they've been a .600 team. Anything can happen, but they start with the edge.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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