It had to come to this, the league’s two best teams from the league’s strongest division, squaring off to see if the American League’s going to stomp all over the National League one more time. The Rays as a representation of all that can be right about an organization on the way up, the Red Sox as a representation of all that can be right about an organization that already has it made. To extend the rhetoric to its most overstated, it’s something fresh from the land of snowbirds and retirees going up against the newly-established evil empire. Whether as a matter of scouting, utilizing performance analysis, or how effectively they keep their players in action, these are two teams that attack every potential organizational problem with every management tool possible, matching their assemblages of playing talent on the field with exceptional talent off of it, in the dugouts, the executive suites, and the trainer’s rooms. Every bit as much as the NLCS, this year’s ALCS promises a tight, exciting, and hard-fought matchup.
Some ancient rivalries require their history, while some active rivalries simply make them. The series split was essentially a wash—the Rays won it 10-8, while the Red Sox outscored Tampa Bay, 87-67. Getting into Pythagorean projections over what that run differential means with only 18 games to work with would be a bit silly, because it would give you the impression the Sox were a wee bit unlucky, when in fact these are, were, and remain two very well-matched teams. However, it’s also worth noting that while 16 runs of that 20-run differential came in two blowout Red Sox wins, they didn’t come against scrubs: one of those wins was a May wipeout of James Shields in Fenway, while the second was a rout of long-time Sox nemesis Scott Kazmir the last time they faced him, little more than three weeks ago.
On the other hand, in their six regular-season series, the first four were all 3-0 sweeps by the home teams, and then the Rays won two of three in the last home-and-home pair of September series. For as much as such things are knowable or reflective, it might be safe to say that those experiences reflect a shared confidence that the league’s best two home teams can take the other guys on their own turf, that neither team outclasses the other, and that conjuring up any meme of the Rays’ relative inexperience and awe facing the two-time world champs would be just another sportswriterly canard.
Red Sox AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP CF-L Jacoby Ellsbury .280/.336/.394 .263 17.8 2B-R Dustin Pedroia .326/.376/.493 .298 62.3 DH-L David Ortiz .264/.369/.507 .295 31.6 3B-R Kevin Youkilis .312/.390/.569 .313 55.8 @ 1B RF-L J.D. Drew .280/.408/.519 .314 33.8 LF-R Jason Bay .286/.373/.522 .309 47.2 1B-L Sean Casey .322/.381/.392 .274 8.2 SS-S Jed Lowrie .258/.339/.400 .263 8.1 C-S Jason Varitek .220/.313/.359 .237 -1.4 Rays AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP 2B-L Akinori Iwamura .274/.349/.380 .264 16.0 CF-R B.J. Upton .273/.383/.401 .291 32.1 1B-L Carlos Pena .247/.377/.494 .306 32.0 3B-R Evan Longoria .272/.343/.531 .302 34.8 LF-L Carl Crawford .273/.319/.400 .262 7.1 DH-L Cliff Floyd .268/.349/.455 .286 12.6 C-S Dioner Navarro .295/.349/.407 .268 17.8 RF-L Gabe Gross .238/.336/.414 .271 3.9 SS-R Jason Bartlett .286/.329/.361 .255 12.9
There might be a perception that the Red Sox have lost some of their offensive firepower—after all, Manny’s being a Dodger, Lowell’s been sidelined, Papi didn’t have his usual kind of season, and Tek’s case of the olds looks terminal. However, such a characterization couldn’t be further from the truth. The Sox finished with a .270 team EqA both this year and last, rating as one of the three best offenses in the league in each season. That’s a straightforward reflection of their slowly swapping in quality farm-grown talent while enjoying the benefit the Sox got from making Manny Ramirez somebody else’s problem and replacing him with the equally valuable Bay.
Not to get overly Rumsfeldian over playing the team you’ve got, but at the point of the time they made the trade, the Red Sox had no reason to believe they’d get what Manny did as a Dodger, and as a matter of unknowables, there’s no guarantee he would have done so were he still a Red Sock. In the end, this was a win-win deal that gave the Sox a more mobile left fielder who quickly made himself familiar with the Rays’ staff by bashing three homers in four games against them for Boston; if you want to ask yourself “WWMD?”, could he really have done any better? The problem, as far as it goes, is that Bay’s first at-bats against first James Shields and then Matt Garza will be his first against each. Will these be matchups won in the video room, long before the real games are played?
Beyond the names now so very familiar from several Octobers past, it’s the new guys who are especially interesting. Pedroia’s breakthrough to the MVP-caliber hitter that PECOTA once forecast to general scouty derision is clearly the most significant development, but Lowrie’s fulfillment of every expectation of him as a hitter and exceeding those for his defense didn’t simply replace Julio Lugo at short, he improved upon his big-money predecessor’s performance. Ellsbury’s up-and-down season makes it hard to pin down what sort of player he’s finally going to settle into being; his mid-season woes seem to have given way to an adaptive aggressiveness at the plate that, while not orthodox Moneyball, seems to have been working for him: since August 1, he hit .314/.352/.463 down the stretch, with only nine walks in 200 PA. That’s considerably more power than was expected of him, but if it means he’s growing into a much less slappy hitter, it also makes for a much better one.
If there’s an element of mystery, it’s whether the famous people show up. Pedroia cooled off down the stretch, and his quiet LDS wasn’t a happy development. David Ortiz’s wrist woes and subsequent struggles at the plate have caused New England-wide panic attacks; in the last four weeks of the regular season he delivered his usual power but hit only .234/.289/.584 overall. Drew’s Game Two game-winning clout off of K-Rod might have been a timely echo of his slugging .848 in June, but he also hit only .236/.396/.409 from July on, not to mention his missing half of August and almost all of September. He’ll be pulled against Kazmir for Coco Crisp, but at this point, it’s an open question as to whether he’s really at his best. Sean Casey’s years removed from the park and the peak that helped make his career; maybe he raps out a few line drives. Maybe. If there’s a slugger in whom the Sox can take solace, it’s Youkilis, because he didn’t simply start hot, he stayed hot.
One of the other neat little features of the Red Sox lineup is that this particular unit isn’t being haunted by the ghost of Jim Rice—overall, they’re relatively mediocre in terms of grounding into double plays in double-play opportunities, but the absences of Lowell and Lugo on some level end up sort of helping them, since they were the most likely Red Sox swingers to clear the bases the wrong way. Double-play threats in the Rays’ lineup are similarly few and far between; Navarro’s the only lock for the lineup who might cause Joe Maddon to get tactical, but with Crawford and the easily swapped-out Floyd batting ahead of the backstop, the Rays’ running game is the most likely mechanism to avoid a quick inning.
The Rays’ offense is an elegant blend of speed and power, with a few dashes of OBP in all the right places. In part that’s because of their finishing second in the AL in walks behind the Red Sox, their .265 team EqA rated third, again a notch behind the Red Sox; where the Red Sox offense got a huge home boost, scoring 5.7 runs at home but 4.7 on the road, the Rays averaged a much more even 4.9 at home and 4.6 everywhere else. The Rays keep things relatively simple by coming straight at opponents with Iwamura (67 unintentional walks, 9.5 percent of all PA), Upton (93, 14.5 percent), and Pena (89, 14.4 percent) up front, generating opportunities in mass quantities, all the better to promote Longoria’s burgeoning stardom. Add in Crawford’s ability to put balls in play, and Floyd’s still-extant power stroke, and it makes for all sorts of trouble—for opposing right-handers. Against lefties, as Nate Silver noted in the LDS preview for the Rays and White Sox, it’s a bit more of a problem; the Game Three and, presumably, Game Seven matchup with Jon Lester looms large.
A tactical asset that might make a difference in this round is the Rays’ speed. Where the Angels’ speed has become something of a diminishing quantity, the Rays are a legitimately fast team, leading the league in steals despite losing Crawford and Bartlett for chunks of the season. That pair plus Upton should be able to test Varitek at will, especially since the Sox catcher only threw out 22.2 percent of opposing thieves.
A big question is whether or not this October could turn into B.J. Upton’s coming-out party. After a season where a bum shoulder hampered his delivering the power output anticipated from him, he didn’t seem any worse for wear facing good pitching against the White Sox while bashing three homers in the LDS. Although he doesn’t have a great track record against the Sox’ front three (.186/.255/.349 with two homers in 47 PA), that’s also a reflection on a young hitter getting started. If he doesn’t improve upon that, he’ll have to settle for LDS stardom, but he’s better against fly-ball pitchers than any other type, and that’s what he’ll get to see in this series. This makes for an interesting contrast with the Rays’ other blossoming star; with Evan Longoria’s pair of bombs to start off Game One of the LDS, it remains to be seen whether he can build on that. He’s been particularly homer-happy in the Trop this season, delivering two-thirds of his 27 homers at home, with a disparity in his home/road ISO marks of .292 batting in the bottom half of innings against .223 in the tops. That’s not a bad thing, not when you’ve got home-field advantage, as the Rays do. What’s interesting about Longoria’s performance is the radical difference between his BABIP at home and on the road—just .258 at home, against .365 on the road. That’s pretty extreme, especially in light of his fly-ball tendencies. Given that he’s not as dangerous against fly-ball pitchers and that’s what the Red Sox are running out there, he may not have much of a chance to add to his legend.
Red Sox AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP CF-S Coco Crisp .283/.344/.407 .265 14.2 OF-L Mark Kotsay .276/.329/.403 .254 6.7 SS-L Alex Cora .270/.371/.349 .260 5.0 INF-R Gil Velazquez* .208/.253/.351 .208 NA C-R Kevin Cash .225/.309/.338 .231 -1.5 C-R David Ross .225/.369/.352 .260 3.1 3B-R Mike Lowell** .274/.338/.461 .272 17.1 Rays AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP OF-R Rocco Baldelli .263/.344/.475 .286 4.0 @ DH INF-S Willy Aybar .253/.327/.410 .262 5.2 @ 3B UT-S Ben Zobrist .253/.339/.505 .294 14.7 @ SS CF-S Fernando Perez* .249/.323/.351 .244 NA C-R Michel Hernandez* .220/.267/.315 .198 NA RF-L Eric Hinske** .247/.333/.465 .281 13.6 *: Translated minor league performance **: Inactive for LCS round
With Lowell’s breakdown, this goes from being an area of relative advantage for the Rays to an obvious romp. The Sox may not keep third catcher Ross—instead retaining a seventh reliever—but Cash will probably get the Game Four start because that’s Wakefield’s game, and Varitek prefers not to deal with the knuckler. There’s consideration for giving Cora a start at short with Lowrie moving to third and Casey to the bench, but that would be more for defense than any thought to who the Rays are starting in a particular game, it’s also not exactly necessary given that the Sox will be starting three power pitchers and a knuckleballer instead of some latter-day Lowe type. That’s not to say that it might not happen in-game, but they’d be better set to do so by adding a right-handed power source (like Jeff Bailey, perhaps?) to give Francona the tactical flexibility to react to the Rays’ group of southpaws in the pen. Kotsay’s a line-drive bat of modest usefulness against right-handers (.288/.345/.432 against them), while Crisp’s blend of speed, defensive value, and OBP vs. right-handers and pop against lefties makes him a multi-utility asset; however, as long as Drew’s in action, Francona’s going to have to be cautious as far as their employment, lest his right fielder’s track record for fragility crop up at an inopportune instance.
As for the Rays’ bench, the surprise may be the decision to drop Hinske for an eleventh pitcher, but as the ALDS proved, Maddon decided against employing him when a few opportunities cropped up (pinch-hitting for Bartlett in Game Three, or coming in for Pena at first base in Game Two), at which point it’s just as well—if you’ve got a choice between using and not using a roster spot, I’ll go with using it, even if I’d rather Hinske got employed. Instead, Maddon’s selections reflect a sense of history and perhaps his past as a coach with Mike Scioscia’s staff on the Angels—carrying Perez for late-game pinch-running heroics makes sense at this time of year, and if something happened to Upton, he’s the burner who can cover center in his absence. Aybar’s a non-shortstop infielder who has his moments with leather and is capable of hitting better than he has this season. Baldelli’s durability may be an issue, but he should be able to fulfill the role of platoon right fielder with Gross (Gacco Grodelli?). The odd player here is Zobrist—his slugging exploits this season were more than a little unexpected, but they were also largely on the road and mostly achieved against lefties. Does this make him an aspiring Game Three hero against Lester, or a weapon against Hideki Okajima or Javier Lopez? Since Aybar can’t really play short, using Zobrist aggressively probably isn’t going to happen, but if on the other hand there’s no circumstance in which Maddon will pinch-hit for Bartlett—and without Hinske, there’s nobody around to pinch-hit for him anyway—it would be interesting to see if that changes in this round.
If there’s a goofy side bet to make in this series, it’s whether either Hernandez or Velazquez get onto the field. Only present on their respective rosters because of injuries, if you’ve just switched on the game and you spot either, it’s either a blowout or already in extras.
Red Sox IP ERA SNLVAR SNW% RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka 167.2 2.90 6.0 .610 RHP Josh Beckett 174.1 4.03 4.6 .575 LHP Jon Lester 210.1 3.21 6.4 .600 RHP Tim Wakefield 181.0 4.13 4.2 .547 Rays IP ERA SNLVAR SNW% RHP James Shields 215.0 3.56 5.4 .636 LHP Scott Kazmir 152.1 3.49 4.8 .600 RHP Matt Garza 184.2 3.70 4.9 .550 RHP Andy Sonnanstine 193.1 4.38 3.0 .591
At first glance, the decision to lead off with Shields seems a bit strange; he’d be in line for a Game Five start in Fenway. If the goal in leading off with Shields is to exploit his big home/road split (home: 2.59 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and just nine homers allowed in 121
The story’s somewhat similar for the Red Sox: Beckett’s unavailability to start the first game of the LDS has an unintended consequence, in that it forced Lester to start the first and fourth games. He thus misses a shot at leading off the LCS against a Rays team he’s logged three quality starts against in his three times out. It nevertheless wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility because of the long break between the two rounds, but it would have required Lester starting on three days’ rest in the first and fourth games of the LCS, and that just wasn’t going to happen. Francona’s choice in this situation is sensible enough given the factors in play; the pity’s that this is a team Lester can beat, while Dice-K’s inefficiency with his pitches bodes for an exit by the sixth inning—Matsuzaka failed to go beyond five in any of his three starts against the patient Rays this season. While that might seem a little thing after the long break between the LDS and LCS, it basically forces the Sox to count on their pen’s working three or four innings in the first game, and that will have an impact on every subsequent game in the series. Add that to Beckett not doing much against the Angels his first time out this October, and this could make for a rough opening to the series.
Red Sox IP ERA WXRL FRA RHP Jonathan Papelbon 69.1 2.34 3.29 2.90 LHP Hideki Okajima 62.0 2.61 1.31 3.83 RHP Justin Masterson 88.1 3.16 1.15 3.08 LHP Javier Lopez 59.1 2.43 1.63 3.14 RHP Manny Delcarmen 74.1 3.27 1.32 3.56 RHP Paul Byrd 180.0 4.60 3.0* 4.89 RHP Mike Timlin 49.1 5.66 -0.89 6.61 Rays IP ERA WXRL FRA RHP Dan Wheeler 66.1 3.12 2.09 2.94 LHP J.P. Howell 89.1 2.22 4.64 2.78 RHP Grant Balfour 58.1 1.54 3.43 0.96 LHP David Price 14.0 1.93 0.09 2.47 RHP Chad Bradford 59.1 2.12 1.52 2.65 LHP Trever Miller 43.1 4.15 1.67 3.32 RHP Troy Percival 45.2 4.53 1.67 5.26 RHP Edwin Jackson 183.1 4.42 4.2* 4.62 *: SNLVAR
The Red Sox may feature the names you know, but in no other unit is their anything like the disparity than there is here between these two teams. Pick your numerical poison with a funny-sounding label: by WXRL, FRA, or ARP, the qualitative advantage the Rays possess in terms of both depth and talent is beyond question. The Rays don’t have the famous closer, but it hasn’t hurt them so far, so just plug up your ears when this fact gets belabored by studio save-mongers and jabbery play-by-play types.
Looking at the Raypen, Balfour has me convinced he’s the real deal, Wheeler can handle multi-run leads and multi-inning assignments, and Bradford’s situational utility should come in handy in the middle innings. The Ray’s trio of lefties should help them neutralize David Ortiz and Drew in the later innings; Papi notably only hit .221/.308/.433 against lefties this year. However, some of us have been arguing for years that opposing teams should be more aggressive in getting this matchup against the Red Sox DH, and to some extent, we’re still waiting to see it happen. But if Maddon wants to defang the hefty lefty, he’s got more tools to do so than the devil’s own dentist. Percival’s already been informed that he isn’t on the LCS roster, so it looks like the Rays’ seventh reliever will be Jackson. That’s a solid choice, in that he gives the team a true long-relief sponge should a starter have to exit early, and his performance was good enough as the Rays’ fifth man that employing him hardly signals a surrender.
Because of the relative balance in terms of handedness in the Rays’ starting lineup, I don’t think Justin Masterson’s going to be as much of a factor, perhaps instead being reserved for getting paired off with Lopez if Francona wants to get matchup-happy. Using this pair as mid-inning mid-game firemen makes particular sense in light of their both ranking among the league’s best at inducing double-play grounders. Expect Okajima to potentially play a big part given the Rays’ problems with lefties, and perhaps also Delcarmen given the effectiveness of his blend of pure gas and tough off-speed stuff. If that latter pair come to the fore and turn leads over to Papelbon, things will have worked out for Boston very neatly indeed. On the other hand, there’s a real danger that, because of the durability and performance issues that go hand-in-hand with the Dice-K and Beckett starts, Byrd and/or Timlin will be pressed into action, which could make a bad situation worse.
The massive change of fortunes in the bullpen for the Rays has been matched by what’s been done on defense. This season, they finished atop the majors in Defensive Efficiency, doing the best job of converting balls in play into outs; this represented a worst-to-first improvement of a less-touted sort. The addition of Bartlett might not tidily translate into perfect defensive work for him, but positional interrelationships aren’t really something sabermetrics has sorted out; it seems safe to concede that, with Iwamura and Bartlett up the middle, Upton settling into his first full season in center, and with Longoria as slick on the hot corner as Pena is on his, this is a unit with good glove work at the key positions.
Keeping with what seems to be a recent trend where defense matters in terms of who’s making it to October, the Red Sox are no slouches, finishing fifth overall this year and second last; adjust for the difficulty of playing in Fenway’s nooks and crannies with Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (or PADE), and the Sox rank first in the league ahead of the Rays. Suffice to say it’s another area in which the two teams are evenly matched. Lowrie won’t win any awards for his play at short, but remember, the Sox have a power/fly-ball rotation for the most part, and infield defense is, for them, less critical than the fact that with their quartet of regular outfielders they have a rangy crew who can help prevent in-play extra-base hits from happening in the first place.
Both men know their jobs, with Maddon coming along fast where Francona had to put in a bumpy first few years with the Phillies to really master his craft. Maddon’s a product of the Scioscia school of putting pressure on a defense with some basepaths aggression, which means on defense, you can anticipate a lot of attempts by the Sox to limit the Rays running game through deterrence by holding runners close; Francona’s not much for pitching out, and Varitek’s not much for throwing people out. Maddon’s not afraid to take risks with two outs if the risk/reward is between having a runner in scoring position and hitting reset on his lineup with a solid option leading off the next frame. Similarly, Francona will push with both Ellsbury and Crisp, and look for opportunities for a Red Sox team that’s faster than it gets credit for. Francona might bunt with Crisp or Pedroia late in a game, and Bartlett might get asked to drop one down, but generally speaking, neither skipper’s a Mauch-keteer when it comes to the sac bunt. Both will end up using their benches mostly to rotate in platoon partners—Crisp for the Sox, Baldelli and Aybar for the Rays. Both have proven adaptable when it comes to changing gears in the bullpen, Francona in his willingness to work Masterson into more important situations as the season progressed, Maddon in his ability to roll with the peripatetic Percival and former closer Al Reyes, and instead get by with the talented and relatively unknown crew he had lined up behind them. As chess matches go, this should prove interesting, but most of all entertaining.
I’m left thinking that it’s as even now, having run through it, as I felt going in. However, with the oddity of the schedule, I’m gambling that the Rays go with the Shields-skipping gambit for Game Five that puts him at home twice in this series. In that instance, I can see the Rays taking a quick 2-0 lead at home, a Red Sox win in Game Three, Sonnanstine surprising people in Game Four, a Red Sox homestand-closing win in Game Five, and then