Breaking down the ALCS

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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. It might be safe to say that those experiences reflect a shared confidence that the league's best two home teams can defend 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.

There might be a perception that the Red Sox have lost some of their offensive firepower -- after all, Manny Ramirez was traded, Mike Lowell's been sidelined, Papi didn't have his usual kind of season and Jason Varitek'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 slowly swapping in quality farm-grown talent while enjoying the benefit the Sox got from making Ramirez somebody else's problem and replacing him with the equally valuable Jason Bay.

Not to get overly Rumsfeldian over playing the team you've got, but at 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 in Boston. 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 Shields and then Matt Garza will come in this series. 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. Dustin 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 become; his mid-season woes have given way to an adaptive aggressiveness at the plate that, while not orthodox Moneyball, seems to be 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 ALDS wasn't a happy development. 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. J.D. Drew's game-winning clout off of K-Rod in Game 2 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 is 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 Kevin Youkilis, because he didn't simply start hot, he stayed hot.

One of the other neat 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 help them, since they are the Red Sox swingers most likely to clear the bases the wrong way. Double-play threats in the Rays' lineup are similarly few and far between; Dioner Navarro is the only lock for the lineup who might cause Joe Maddon to get tactical, but with Carl Crawford and the easily swapped-out Cliff 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 they finished 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 Akinori Iwamura (67 unintentional walks, 9.5 percent of all PA), Upton (93, 14.5 percent) and Carlos Pena (89, 14.4 percent) up front, generating opportunities in mass quantities, all the better to promote Evan 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 ALDS preview for the Rays and White Sox, it's a bit more of a problem; the Game 3 and, presumably, Game 7 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 Jason Bartlett for chunks of the season. That pair, plus B.J. 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 Upton's coming-out party. After a season where a bum shoulder hampered his anticipated power output, he didn't seem any worse for wear facing good pitching against the White Sox while bashing three homers in the ALDS. Although he doesn't have a great track record against the Sox's front three (.186/.255/.349 with two homers in 47 PA), that's also a reflection of a young hitter. If he doesn't improve upon that, he'll have to settle for ALDS 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 Longoria's pair of bombs to start off Game 1 of the ALDS, 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.

With Lowell's breakdown, this goes from being an area of relative advantage for the Rays to an obvious romp. The Sox kept third catcher David Ross -- instead of retaining a seventh reliever -- and Cash will probably get the Game 4 start because that's Wakefield's game and Varitek prefers not to deal with the knuckler. There's consideration for giving Alex Cora a start at short with Jed 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. 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 versus right-handers and pop against lefties makes him a multi-utility asset; however, as long as Drew's in action, Terry Francona is 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 3, or coming in for Pena at first base in Game 2), 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 Fernando 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. Willy Aybar is a non-shortstop infielder who has his moments with leather and is capable of hitting better than he has this season. Rocco Baldelli's durability may be an issue, but he should be able to fulfill the role of platoon right fielder with Gabe Gross (Gacco Grodelli?). The odd player here is Ben 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 3 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.

At first glance, the decision to lead off with Shields seems a bit strange; he'd be in line for a Game 5 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 1/3 IP; road: 4.82, 1.39, and 15 allowed in 93 1/3 IP), they only get that one time out. Add in that Shields has been crushed in Fenway twice already, and this starts to look like a really bad idea. However, because of that handy-dandy day off between Game 4 and Game 5, what we might instead see is the Game 2 starter making a Game 5start on a normal four days' rest, and then have Shields come out to face the Sox again on his home turf in Game 6. That would be an especially neat trick in the sense that it still accords Shields the honor of leading off the series, and if there's a real-world concern over Kazmir getting overly worked up, maybe this helps take the edge off.

You can count on the Sox to work the wild lefty -- all the better to bring Papi back into play -- but because of the schedule, however soon the Sox work Kazmir to his limit wouldn't militate against that Game 5 start. Admittedly, this wasn't Kazmir's best year against the Red Sox, as he took beatings his first and last times out against them while managing only one quality start in four tries. His inconsistency down the stretch is certainly cause for concern, but given the opponent and the opportunity, the Rays will have to play their cards extremely carefully deciding who starts where. If they don't, they will cost themselves the opportunity of maximizing the potential benefits while also putting their bullpen on the spot much earlier in games than they should want. The one thing to see will be if Andy Sonnanstine can add his name to those of Howard Ehmke or Dickie Kerr in the history of improbable postseason heroes with his Game 4 effort -- he shut the Red Sox down with a pair of quality starts in September, and perhaps his pokey pacing helps get normally patient Red Sox hitters to rush their at-bats. Garza, in contrast, managed one in four against the Red Sox this season, and if he struggled with locating his fastball against the much weaker White Sox, you can imagine what will happen if that's the case against Boston.

The story's somewhat similar for the Red Sox: Josh Beckett's unavailability to start the first game of the ALDS 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 to start on three days' rest in the first and fourth games of the ALCS, and that just wasn't going to happen. Francona's choice in this situation is sensible enough given the factors in play; the pity is that this is a team Lester can beat, while Daisuke Matsuzaka'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 ALDS and ALCS, 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.

The Red Sox may feature the names you know, but this is the unit with the biggest disparity between the 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, Grant Balfour has me convinced he's the real deal, Wheeler can handle multi-run leads and multi-inning assignments, and Chad Bradford's situational utility should come in handy in the middle innings. The Ray's trio of lefties should help them neutralize 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. Troy Percival's already been informed that he isn't on the ALCS roster, so it looks like the Rays' seventh reliever will be Edwin 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 of righties and lefties in the Rays' starting lineup, I don't think Justin Mastersonis going to be as much of a factor, perhaps instead being reserved for getting paired off with Javier 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 comes to the fore and turns 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, Paul Byrd and/or Mike 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.

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 it 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 aggression on the basepaths, 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 5 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 3, Sonnanstine surprising people in Game 4, a Red Sox homestand-closing win in Game 4, and then the Rays winning the series in six, because if they don't, it'll be the Red Sox in seven. It may not have the same drama as the 1986 NLCS, where the Mets had to win in Game 6 or lose to Mike Scott in Game 7, but it's close, and if the Sox get this series to a second Lester start going up against Garza, that's a recipe for a successful pennant reclamation.