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October 8, 2009

Playoff Prospectus

Angels versus Red Sox LDS

by Christina Kahrl

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Well, this certainly seems familiar. One of the reliable features of a divisional playoff slate that involves twice as many ballclubs and wild-card teams makes for a few rematches, so it's not too much of a surprise that we get to see the Red Sox and Angels square off for a fourth time in six years in October. Perhaps it's the easy isolation of living in the Midwest, but there seems to be little of the overwrought provincial self-absorption for Angels fans, where they might deserve to be filled with equal parts trepidation and anticipation. Where the hysterics of Red Sox Nation would treat three series losses to the same opponent in five years in October-the very same opponent from the epic '86 ALCS no less-there seems to be no such elaborate attention devoted the equally desperate concerns of Angels fans for having to be the ones who have seen their team fight and falter before the Red Sox in those three LDS matchups. It can't be taken as too much of a surprise; no doubt there are Rangers fans still bitter over how their team was squashed thrice in four seasons by the Yankees in the late '90s, and no doubt Yankees fans, those East Coast sophisticates, were like so many crushers and enjoyed the stomping, and Red Sox fans are no doubt no different when it comes to their post-season entertainments.

For the rest of us, Angels fans or no, this time's tango presents the obvious question: Will the Angels graduate from winning just one of their 10 previous post-season games to making a real series of it? Can they even simply take the Red Sox, and ease Anaheimenos' pain? The season series was essentially even, with the Angels winning five of nine, scoring 44 to Boston's 40, and six of the nine were one-run decisions. Of course, beyond the fact that those three series were tight and involved several late-game rallies, it's also important to remember that two of them were played in the season's first five weeks-you know, when Nick Green was an object of frantic curiosity-and of the 12 different starting pitchers involved between the two teams, seven won't be starting in this series. There's only so much to be read into what Dustin Moseley did against the Red Sox in April, Matt Palmer's complete-game victory against Boston in May, or what Brad Penny did to the Angels in his two starts as a Sock. And what there is, not much of it is that relevant to these ballgames. Setting aside the dopey truism, "this is why they play the games," let's run through the units and their performances over the full season.

Lineups


Team                    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
CF-L Jacoby Ellsbury   .301/.355/.415  .278   41.2
2B-R Dustin Pedroia    .296/.371/.447  .282   39.0
C-S Victor Martinez*   .303/.381/.480  .300   43.5
1B-R Kevin Youkilis    .305/.415/.548  .319   53.4
DH-L David Ortiz       .238/.332/.462  .268   14.3
LF-R Jason Bay         .286/.373/.522  .306   47.5
3B-R Mike Lowell       .290/.337/.474  .273   22.7
RF-L J.D. Drew         .267/.384/.537  .301   34.2
SS-R Alex Gonzalez*    .238/.279/.355  .220   -4.8
*: Combined full-season stats.

Angels                    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
3B-S Chone Figgins       .298/.395/.393  .284   37.8
RF-L Bobby Abreu         .293/.390/.435  .293   35.7
CF-R Torii Hunter        .299/.366/.508  .297   40.9
DH-R Vladimir Guerrero   .295/.334/.460  .270   15.6
LF-R Juan Rivera         .287/.332/.478  .274   22.5
1B-S Kendry Morales      .306/.355/.569  .299   39.9
2B-S Maicer Izturis      .300/.359/.434  .278   22.3
C-R Jeff Mathis          .211/.288/.308  .214   -9.2
SS-S Erick Aybar         .312/.353/.423  .271   29.7

While these are the third- and fourth-best offenses in the American League, with the Angels' .267 team EqA fitting directly behind the Sox's .268, there are a few tweaks in the ointment as far as the likely starters in the first game that puts each unit at slightly less than its best. The Red Sox were concerned that Lowell's thumb injury might keep him from being available to start, pressing either Jason Varitek or Casey Kotchman into the lineup with Martinez and/or Kevin Youkilis moving around the infield, but Lowell's apparently going to be in tonight's lineup.

The Angels' potential lineup tweak is more elective in nature, in that Mathis has been John Lackey's catcher the last 16 starts in a row, meaning that Mike Napoli hasn't been in the starting battery with the team's veteran ace since before the All-Star break. Barring any injuries, Mathis is the worst hitter who will start a ballgame in this series, but it might be no surprise that Mike Scioscia's read something into the Lackey/Mathis battery producing 12 quality starts (three blown after six IP) in 13 from July 12 on, before the Angels could afford to switch into cruise control. The Angels can enjoy reasonable confidence in the balance of their lineup, and as we'll see when we get to the bullpens, anything that might help guarantee that his first-game starter brings his A-game to the contest and keeps the team out of the bullpen is arguably more significant than the gaping difference between the value of two or three early-game Mathis at-bats versus two or three from Napoli.

One of the memes that'll get knocked around is how the Red Sox are an aging team that lacks the Angels' speed. That's true, but only up to a point-the Red Sox have Ellsbury and Pedroia up front to run with, and avoid mistakes, while the Angels have plenty of aging, slow sluggers of their own in the middle of the order. Expressed as a matter of total Equivalent Baserunning Runs, and the two clubs aren't really that special, with the difference representing a mere run to the Angels' advantage on the full season. Break those numbers down a bit, though, and you'll find that the Angels hurt themselves with their running game, running themselves down to 24th in majors because of their poor success rate stealing bases; where they've helped themselves is the extra bases that the net getting extra bags on hits. While J.D. Drew and Jason Bay both boast accurate arms, neither is Dwight Evans, and Ellsbury's popgun can and will be exploited when the opportunity arises; this will be a more significant factor in the wide-open spaces of the Big A, of course. Because the Red Sox also aren't very good at containing their opponents' running games, catching only 13 percent of stolen-base attempts, it won't be surprising for the Angels to run the risks for which they're known, so much will depend on how effective Red Sox pitching will be as cold warriors, deterring the running game by keeping runners off base and holding close those they allow.

Beyond that, the Red Sox have all of the classical advantages in terms of drawing more walks and hitting for more power; they're also the better team at hitting line drives. As you'd expect for the team that nevertheless hit for a better average while generating league-average rates for walks and slightly better than average power, the Angels have the higher BABIP-while the Red Sox are barely a tick above average, the Halos are up at .322 as a team. There's no one Angel who stands out on this score, since everybody's doing better than average. You could argue this is one of the synergistic benefits of being more aggressive on the bases, in that you're pushing defenses and forcing fielders to divide their attentions more than most opponents. None too coincidentally, you'll find the leaderboard for OBI% spattered with Angels-Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu and Howie Kendrick and Kendry Morales, you might expect, but Maicer Izturis and Little Sarge too? While Vladi might seem like the weak link in the middle of the order, he's slugged a more Vladi-like .498 in the last two months. If there's an issue, it's that Abreu and Figgins aren't as effective against lefties, which bodes ill as far as getting things off on the best possible foot in the first game of the series, with Lester on the mound.

In contrast, the Red Sox are a lineup we've gotten to see so much of over the years that it's easy to understate their virtues, since they're so familiar. It's also easy to overstate how much they've gotten older and less effective. Here again, that's overstated. Yes, David Ortiz isn't what he was, but he hit a more Papi-like .264/.356/.548 in the last four months. Lowell's less than he was, but still dangerous. Youkilis and Bay remain reliable when it comes to cashing in the opportunities created by Ellsbury and Pedroia. Adding Victor Martinez has given the club both a much more elaborate set of tactical opportunities as far as being able to keep the fading Tek on the bench and bouncing first-base duties between V-Mart and Youkilis, and using Kotchman and Varitek only during Lowell's absences.

Benches


Red Sox                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
C-S Jason Varitek      .209/.313/.390  .244    2.0
1B-L Casey Kotchman*   .268/.339/.382  .257   -1.2
SS-S Jed Lowrie        .147/.211/.265  .164   -6.3
OF-L Joey Gathright*   .267/.313/.267  .205   -1.7
OF-R Brian Anderson*   .243/.328/.347  .236   -3.3

Angels                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
C-R Mike Napoli         .272/.350/.492  .284   25.8
2B-R Howie Kendrick     .291/.334/.444  .268   16.5
OF-S Gary Matthews Jr.  .250/.336/.361  .250    1.9
4C-R Robb Quinlan       .243/.275/.339  .212   -5.1 @ 1B
OF-S Reggie Willits     .213/.256/.238  .197   -6.5 @ LF
C-R Bobby Wilson**      .226/.268/.340  .208    NA
*: Combined full-season stats.
**: Translated minor league performance.

For the Red Sox, injuries played a determining role in who's on the roster. Jed Lowrie's on the roster because Nick Green's out of action, while Brian Anderson made the cut only because Rocco Baldelli's not able to play. You can describe this as a lot of things, but it's only a reflection of depth and/or flexibility if you feel those words are entirely value-neutral, with no qualitative judgments involved. Yes, the Red Sox have functioning uniform-wearing carbon units. Yes, they play many of the same positions that other, better uniform-wearing carbon units could and did. Unfortunately, given the hole at short, they may get stuck asking whether they want to plug the probably stale Lowrie into the late frames of a playoff game, when all they have to pinch-hit for Alex Gonzalez is the decidedly frustrating Kotchman. If Francona elects to avoid using his bench for much more than defensive replacement chores to exploit Varitek's familiarity with the relievers or Kotchman's deft touch at first, and the odd pinch-running assignment for Gathright, don't be surprised. The more agonizing possibility comes later in the series, when the Sox might want to consider pulling Papi against any of the Angels' lefties, because absent Baldelli, they may have to live with the matchup.

The Angels' advantage here is more a matter of numbers and discrete uses for the players on the pine. We can set aside Napoli-he'll be in the lineup when they're not running Lackey out onto the bump. There's also not much to say for Wilson-he's not much of a prospect, but he's the third catcher who lets them pinch-hit for Mathis or pinch-run for Napoli without eliminating their tactical options later still in-game. Willits and Matthews give them the pinch-runners to employ, whether for the catchers or Vladi or Rivera, but they might also employ Matthews as a defensive replacement for Rivera through the odd (for the AL) double-switch. The decision to prefer Quinlan to Brandon Wood is lamentable, given Quinlan's declining utility as a contact bat to spot against lefties, but I suspect Quinlan's experience at all four corners contributed to it. The real question is whether there will be situations that arise that call for his employment; with Kendrick and Aybar taking turns on the bench, he's not the first hitter you'd call upon, and beyond Mathis and Willits, there's nobody you'd go out of your way to pinch-hit him for. Wood's absence shouldn't prove that telling, since they do have the benefit of Kendrick's power/contact stroke, but a hitter who could simply go yard for you would have been more handy than Quinlan.

Rotations


Red Sox                 IP      ERA SNLVAR  SNWP
LHP Jon Lester         203.1   2.90   6.2   .583
RHP Josh Beckett       212.1   3.86   5.3   .546
RHP Clay Buchholz       92.0   4.21   2.4   .547
RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka   59.1   5.76   0.7   .439

Angels                 IP      ERA SNLVAR  SNWP
RHP John Lackey       176.1   3.83   3.9   .540
RHP Jered Weaver      211.0   3.75   5.9   .568
LHP Scott Kazmir      147.1   4.89   3.0   .507
LHP Joe Saunders      186.0   4.60   2.5   .481

The first game's perhaps the most compelling matchup, for reasons that stand in opposition against one another. Combining regular and post-season play, Lackey's got a long history of losing games to the Red Sox, many of them tough, going and 3-9 against the Red Sox. If anyone's the standard bearer for Angels frustration with playing the Red Sox, it's him. On the other hand, Lester and the Angels have nothing like that same familiarity; he's started just four games against them on his career, and none this year. Usually, unfamiliarity's a factor that's felt to be to the pitcher's advantage, but the Angels have lefty killers past and present throughout their lineup, with Juan Rivera's 12 homers against southpaws being the frightening highlight. However, not seeing Lester now that he seems to have blossomed into one of the game's best starters strikes me as something that should serve the southpaw well.

After tonight's studied contrasts in direct experience, the series gets a little hairier. Weaver and Beckett both had second-half fades, but Beckett's involved a five-game stretch when he allowed 14 homers that seems to have been erased with some mechanical adjustments with pitching coach John Farrell; he's allowed just one homer in his last five. He should be squared away to live up to his reputation for post-season performance, but we'll have to see. Weaver's troubles similarly seem to have been fixed up to the Angels' satisfaction, as he delivered quality starts in seven of his eight turns before five shutout innings in his final regular-season tune-up. As more of a contact-and-grounders pitcher, keeping him away from the Red Sox offense in Fenway makes good sense, especially given the big split in his performance against them in Fenway (7.06 ERA) and the Big A (1.42 ERA, with a WHIP under one).

The question of whether or not Buchholz is gassed will also be put to the test, but his start against the Angels will also be his first this season; he allowed 18 runs in 17 IP in the more previous, more nervous portion of his career, but winning his big-league debut against them in 2007. Dice-K dodged eleven baserunners over seven innings to allow just one run against the Angels in his one turn against them in September, winning a squeaker over Lackey as part of his successful bid to rejoin the rotation for October action, thus sparing the Sox any extra concern over whether Tim Wakefield would be healthy enough or if they'd really have to resort to Paul Byrd.

The matchups against Kazmir and Weaver thus become even more of a concern, even if you can set aside Boston's mediocre 30-25 record against lefties. Only an early hook to keep him rested prevented Kazmir from logging six quality starts in six for the Halos, a good run that extends back to 10 in his last 12 with a 3/1 K/BB ratio and a 3.07 ERA. Add in his history of holding the Red Sox in check and a career 3.05 ERA in Fenway, and the Angels have to like their possibilities in Game Three. Saunders' bend/don't break style has also succeeded against the Red Sox and he's won all three decisions in four Fenway starts, so while spotting the pair of southpaws in the shadow of the Monster might prove inspired or well-timed, and not merely a matter of lining up the rotation to have each starter take his turn according to the pecking order.

Bullpens


Red Sox                  IP     ERA  WXRL   rFRA
RHP Jonathan Papelbon   68.0   1.85  5.93   1.89
LHP Hideki Okajima      61.0   3.39  2.99   3.78
RHP Ramon Ramirez       69.2   2.84  1.40   3.14
LHP Billy Wagner*       13.2   1.72  0.35   2.95
RHP Daniel Bard         49.1   3.65  0.21   3.83
RHP Takashi Saito       55.2   2.43  0.17   3.30
RHP Paul Byrd           34.0   5.82  0.90*  6.00

Angels                   IP     ERA  WXRL   rFRA
LHP Brian Fuentes       55.0   3.93  2.67   3.91
LHP Darren Oliver       73.0   2.71  2.18   2.89
RHP Ervin Santana      139.2   5.03  1.74*  0.00
RHP Jason Bulger        65.2   3.56  1.71   3.00
LHP Kevin Jepsen        54.2   4.94  1.48   4.57
RHP Matt Palmer        121.1   3.93  0.88   2.65
rFRA: Relief-only FRA.
*: Combined full-season stats.
**: SNLVAR + WXRL

The distinctions here couldn't be much more stark. The Sox have one of baseball's best closers in Papelbon, one of history's best in Wagner, a pair of rubber-armed set-up men in Okajima and Ramirez, Bard's pure power, and Saito's mere effectiveness. With a half-dozen weapons that effective, you can understand why Terry Francona might have reviewed whatever unlikely scenarios might have entailed using Manny Delcarmen, and decided it was better to just stick, in Byrd, an extra starter in the back of the bullpen, just in case any of these games go into extras or if any of his starters-and especially Buchholz or Dice-K-get into trouble early. Francona will get the opportunity to use his bullpen to good effect, and he's good at it, but the question will be if he ends up overusing it by swapping in too quickly and running through people early in the series, when there's every likelihood that he's going to need it at full strength for the Fenway portion of the series.

In contrast, the Angels have a shorter list of options. Scioscia's frustrations with Fuentes aren't news, but they might be handy now, since the absence of a capital-C closer can let him use Oliver, Bulger, and Fuentes according to who's hitting, not which inning it happens to be, and leave the awarding of a save to those hung up on timing and official scoring. Kevin Jepsen's uses will be strictly limited to right-handed situational chores, while Palmer's the long reliever here to prophylact against the workload problems that attend early exits or extra-inning affairs. All of which leaves Santana-who might end up being the key player in this pen. He has the ability to handle multiple innings as is, but add in the suggestion that working in relief could give him a couple of ticks on his fastball back, plus his darting slider, and it isn't hard to envision how he could become the bridge from the sixth on into the eighth inning, allowing Scioscia to keep his other odds and ends for the very last. What the Sox might have going for them in sheer numbers, the Angels may receive from Santana, compressing the assignments for the other high-leverage relievers to the last four to six outs in the tightest games. Failing that, the Angels' bullpen can be beaten, and the Sox have put it on the spot often enough, even without Nick Green and the odd generous call from behind the plate.

Defense

Defense will have an impact in that neither team's really very good at it, ranking towards the rear in both Defensive Efficiency and PADE. The Red Sox have to put up with their shortstops because the rules insist that they employ a ninth man on the diamond, but Gonzalez hasn't been a difference-maker there to at least give them some fine leather to appreciate. Mike Lowell's lost a ton of value to the infirmities of age, rating badly by all metrics, but especially badly by Plus/Minus (-17). Pedroia's value at second compensates for this somewhat, especially on the deuce, but it's not an infield that'll shut down the Angels' pesky attack, forcing Sox pitching to rely that much more on winning their battles at home plate, as if the threat of the running game wasn't enough. Beyond the issues with Ellsbury's arm, Jason Bay doesn't cover much ground, but J.D. Drew's been an asset in how well he covers the expansive right-field pasturage in Fenway.

For the Angels, they lack any signature disasters or strengths in the infield-Figgins has been an asset at third base, Kendrick and Izturis are both useful at second, and Aybar's perhaps a little exciting in some of the risks he'll take now and again, but he's not spectacular as far as how he grades out by any metric. Who makes waves in this ocean of adequacy? Juan Rivera comes up everywhere from very good to downright excellent in left, while there's the particular problem in right that comes with any decision to employ Bobby Abreu, where his now-usual blend of spotty range, wall-shy fielding, and a scatter-shot arm makes for unexpected adventures.

Managers

The other LA matchup might generate more headlines, but the matchup between Francona and Scioscia might be the far more interesting duel between tacticians. Both skippers are scrupulous students of the game and the details of running lineups, rotations, and pens, and you won't find either man making a move without an understanding of the risks and the benefits. Scioscia's understanding of the difference between the regular season and October baseball is reflected in his carrying just a half-dozen relievers, two of them men who can start-if you're going to start Jeff Mathis in a game, you want to be able to pinch-hit for him, and having a third catcher in such a situation comes in handy. Both managers have carried pinch-runners in the form of Willits and Gathright, but you can expect as a matter of their respective roster designs that Scioscia's better equipped to go after Francona's pen with his better bench, while Francona's reliever usage patterns will be where he's likely to be most involved. It'll be interesting to see if Scioscia's going to use Santana as a multi-inning relief ace, reserving his late-game relievers for very late and maximum flexibility, but the Angels' defensive innings figure to be comparatively uncomplicated mano y mano affairs, given the deliberately shorter list of options in the bullpen and the absence of any impact players on the Boston bench. The potentially exciting contrast in-game will be with the Red Sox' defensive innings, which later on figure to be particularly interesting as chess matches go, since going with six hitters on the bench means that Scioscia has given himself a rare opportunity on offense to counter the standard La Russian matchup-hunting on the mound.

Prediction

As Joe said earlier today, this is sports, not a morality tale, yet it's hard not to see this series through the lens of whether or not the Angels might finally be able to bury Boston while exorcising their past failures against the Red Sox, and achieve some sort of karmic revenge. Maybe I'm just thinking in those terms after finishing Joe Posnanski's fine The Machine, and being reminded of that team's frustrations with the Dodgers in particular and the post-season in general. This year's Angels team is different from past iterations in that it's able to get on base via the free pass and has no obvious weak spot in the lineup when Jeff Mathis is safely tucked away from a starting assignment. It's also a stronger rotation top to bottom. Given the way the assignments have dropped, this one will start off with a Red Sox win tonight, the Angels tie matters up in Game Two, they split in Fenway, and then they'll come back to the Big A, having gotten a good look at Lester in the first game, and with the advantage of the wider spaces they know so well, the Angels win this series in five.

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

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