by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
October 5, 2009
The Red Sox have faced the Angels in the American League Divisional series
three times in the past five seasons, and their upcoming 2009 showdown will make
it four times in six years. So far, Boston is 3-0 in those series and 9-1
in those games. Because of this, Angels fans are terrified and the Red Sox
are heavily favored. Will history indeed repeat itself?
Records - Angels 97-65, Red Sox 95-67
Runs Scored - Angels 883 (2nd), Red Sox 872 (3rd)
Runs Allowed - Angels 761 (8th), Red Sox 736 (3rd)
The Angels won the 2009 season series 5-4, but that does not tell us a whole
lot. Last year, the Angels were 8-1 against Boston, yet proceeded to lose
the ALDS in four games. The Angels also had a better record than Boston in
2008 by five wins. You could argue that those statistics were still meaningful,
as Boston had the better overall and head-to-head record in both 2004 and in
2007 and were able to sweep the Halos.
The Angels' five-win advantage lat year was misleading, however. The AL
West was a joke, while the AL East was typically tough. The winning
percentage of Red Sox opponents was .515, but just .502 for Angels foes.
It's much more even this season, with the Angels' opponents at a .509 win
percentage and Boston's at .507. Actually, the Red Sox are 14 games over
.500 against the lowly Baltimore Orioles but just 14 games over against the
rest of MLB. At the same time, the Angels are a combined 14 games over
against the Orioles and Royals and 18 over against everyone else.
Similarly, the Sox' projected winning percentage based on runs scored and runs
allowed was better than the Angels' in 2008: .589 to .542. This year, it
is again much more even, with Boston ahead .577 to .568. Their overall
runs scored and runs allowed totals are similar, however, given their home
ballparks, you must consider the Angels the better hitting team and the Red Sox
the better pitching team.
The pitching matchups are very interesting in this series. Mike Scioscia has elected to go with his playoff-seasoned pitcher in games one and five (John Lackey) and his best pitcher this season in game 2 (Jared Weaver). Conversely, Terry Francona will save 2007 postseason wonder Josh Beckett for game 2, instead going with John Lester - who has been a far more consistent pitcher than Beckett this season - in games one and five. Both staffs feature a pitcher who was disappointing for most of the year, but solid of late: Scott Kazmir for the Halos and Diasuke Matsuzaka for the BoSox. Both pitchers also walk too many batters even when they are going well. The postseason rotations are rounded out by Joe Saunders, a bad pitcher who rode a great offense and good defense to 16 victories, and Clay Buchholz, a youngster with much potential but who has been inconsistent thus far in his big league career.
While the rotations are more similar than different, the bullpens are polar opposites. Boston boasts perhaps the best bullpen this decade, with Jonathan Papelbon, Takashi Saito, and Billy Wagner - each very accomplished closers - backed up by two of the best setup men around in Ramon Ramirez and Hideki Okajima. They even have ageless knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to soak up innings if one of their starters falters. Meanwhile, the Angels' best reliever this season has inexplicably been Darren Oliver, the 39-year old journeyman with a 4.75 career ERA who has done a pretty good Jamie Moyer impersonation since spending the 2005 season in the minor leagues. He'll set things up for fellow southpaw Brian Fuentes, who predictably led the majors in saves, but blew seven of 55 save chances en route to a disappointing 3.93 ERA. It appears that Jason Bulger is the team's best right-handed bullpen option. What a departure from the days of Troy Percival, Scott Shields, and Francisco Rodriguez, eh?
But while this is the Angels' worst bullpen in the Mike Scioscia era, it is the best offense the franchise has compiled since 1979, if not ever. It all starts at the top, with Chone Figgins coming off the worst season of his career and providing the best season for a leadoff hitter in the post-Ricky Henderson era. When was the last time a player with 42 stolen bases led the league in walks and runs scored? On top of that, he plays mean defense at third base. He should be runner-up to Joe Mauer for AL MVP, although his incredible season has gone largely unheralded around baseball.
Okay, enough Figgins exultation for now. There's plenty more to talk about behind him. Kendry Morales has broken out and had a magnificent season despite being a free-swinger. Torii Hunter has been the best centerfielder in the AL when he has been healthy. Bobby Abreu continues to be one of the best run-producers in baseball. Vlad Guerrero is clearly on the decline, but I sure wouldn't want my pitcher to face him in a clutch situation during the playoffs. Mike Napoli is one of the five best offensive catchers in the game.
There is no hole in the lineup, so you cannot pitch around anyone. The lineup can beat you with power or speed. They advance runners with productive outs. Figgins and Abreu make the opposing pitchers work. Whatever obstacles they encounter in a given game, this Angels offense has the tools to overcome them.
The Red Sox have a very good offense of their own, with Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis, J.D. Drew, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Victor Martinez each among the league's better hitters. After that, however, they have questions. You can argue that David Ortiz' .869 second half OPS and history of clutch hits against the Angels makes him a feared hitter, but he is basically even keel with Vlad in my book. Mike Lowell isn't even as valuable as his .713 road OPS suggests since he is a defensive liability and a double play machine. Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins and Cap Varitek are just huge holes in the lineup that are there for exploitation. At least the Sox have either Ortiz or Lowell available to pinch hit for them on any given night.
The biggest differences are that Angels pitchers will be able to pitch around the middle of the Boston lineup to get to the weak underbelly at the end, while the Angels have no such underbelly. Also, aside from Ellsbury and Pedroia at the top, the Sox don't have anyone able to manufacture runs if an Angels starter has his best stuff. Conversely, the Angels featured half a dozen players with double-digits in steals and nearly everyone in the lineup excels at situational hitting. They can still win a pitchers' duel.
If the Red Sox can keep these games close into the late innings, their bullpen will take over and lead them to victory. It's just as likely, however, that the Angels' bats will jump all over the Red Sox early and make that fab pen a moot point. Beckett and Lester have both fared much better at Fenway than they have on the road, which will make it very difficult for Boston to take any of the games in Anaheim. On top of that, Kazmir has always pitched well against them and has a 1.73 ERA in six starts with the Angels, making him the favorite over Buchholz in game 3. If there's a game 4, I think Matsuzaka's propensity to issue free passes will come back to bite him against the Angels' incredibly deep lineup. So basically, all five pitching matchups favor the Angels, and the Angels have the better offense. There's only so much the BoSox bullpen can do if they are handed a multi-run deficit every game.
Prediction: Angels in Four
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at email@example.com.