Playoff Preview: Angels – Red Sox

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
Anaheim            92     70     .568     836     734     91-70
Boston             98     64     .605     949     769     97-64
 
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
Anaheim            5.16     .282     .341     .429     272     162     449      935
Boston             5.86     .282     .360     .472     373     222     658     1185
 
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
Anaheim            4.45     .263     .324     .415     298     170     502     1164
Boston             4.75     .255     .316     .408     318     159     447     1132

To be honest, I’m still a little shocked that for the first time in five years, the Oakland A’s aren’t in the playoffs. But even more than that I’m shocked that the A’s, built on great pitching and great second-half performances, slumped horribly down the stretch, going 13-18 in September and October, as their “Big Three” of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito fell apart.

After dominating the A’s in their head-to-head matchup over the weekend, the Anaheim Angels, who went 17-14 down the stretch while the A’s slumped, are back in the playoffs two years after winning the World Series. The big question now is whether they can make the same kind of incredible run that they made in 2002. I think the answer is a fairly complicated one, because while the team is very capable of making a similar run — as just about any playoff team is — the makeup of the team is different than the one that blitzed through New York and Minnesota before coming back to beat San Francisco in the World Series.

For one thing, their overall numbers suggest that this year’s version of the Angels is simply not as good.

YEAR      W      L      RS      RA     DIFF      ExpWL
2002     99     63     851     644     +207     101-61
2004     92     70     836     734     +102      91-71

The Angels’ offense has been similarly effective this year, scoring nearly as many runs as they did in 2002. However, the pitching staff, which had the fewest runs allowed in the entire league in 2002, hasn’t been nearly as good this season. The end result is that the 2002 team, with a run differential of +207, had an “expected record” of 101-61, the best in the AL. This year’s team, with a run differential of “only” +102, has an expected record of 91-71, which, while good, is only fourth among AL teams.

So while the Angels winning the World Series in 2002 was certainly a surprise to most (myself included), there is certainly evidence that they were the best team in the AL heading into the playoffs. I don’t really see any evidence of that this year, but let’s delve a little deeper and take a closer look.

Part of the reason for Anaheim’s postseason success in 2002 was their unique offensive attack, which utilized free swingers who made contact and lashed singles and doubles all over the field (and homers too in the postseason). Is this year’s offense capable of that? Let’s take a look …

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO      SB
2002     .282     .341     .433     333     152     462     805     117
2004     .282     .341     .429     272     162     449     935     141

The 2002 Angels were the toughest team in the league to both strike out and induce into a double play, and they ranked 10th in homers and 11th in walks. That, along with their league-leading batting average and third-ranked doubles and stolen base totals meant they put a ton of pressure on the defense, which, as we saw throughout the playoffs, and particularly in their first-round series with the Yankees, had a huge impact.

This year’s team has nearly identical batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage numbers across the board, and most of how they got there is also very similar. The 2004 offense is actually tougher to walk than the 2002 version, ranking dead last in the AL with just 449 free passes all year. They struck out 16% more often than in 2002, but still managed to have the fewest strikeouts in the AL. Like in 2002, the Angels run an a lot, leading the league with 141 steals, but they’ve also grounded into 17% more double plays this season.

While this year’s Anaheim offensive attack has a similar lack of home run power, ranking 10th in the AL in long balls just as they did in 2002, they haven’t been nearly as effective hitting doubles. After smacking 333 two-baggers in 2002, they hit just 272 this year, a difference of 18%. In adding everything up, this group of hitters is a lot more similar to the 2002 group than I expected they’d be, but they aren’t quite an exact replica, grounding into more double plays, striking out more often, and hitting sigificantly fewer doubles.

Of course, the hitting is only half of the story. In thinking back on the Angels’ pitching staff from 2002, I remembered them having a sub par starting rotation (for postseason standards, at least) and a great bullpen, which is exactly what they have this year. However, in looking at the actual numbers, that wasn’t quite the case in 2002.

2002                  ERA          2004                  ERA
Jarrod Washburn      3.15          Kelvim Escobar       3.93
John Lackey          3.66          Jarrod Washburn      4.64
Ramon Ortiz          3.77          John Lackey          4.67
Kevin Appier         3.92          Bartolo Colon        5.01

Led by Jarrod Washburn and his 3.15 ERA, which ranked seventh in the AL, the 2002 Angels featured four starters with ERAs between 3.15 and 3.92. This year’s group only has one pitcher with an ERA below 4.00, Kelvim Escobar at 3.93, and the guy who might be the “ace” of the staff, Bartolo Colon, has an ERA of 5.01. So while Anaheim’s rotation this year might match my memory of their rotation in 2002, it certainly doesn’t match the reality.

However, the bullpen matches both, as the Angels led the league in bullpen ERA in 2002 and 2004, and featured a very similar group of relievers (stats in relief only).

2002                    ERA     SO/9          2004                    ERA     SO/9
Francisco Rodriguez    1.48     15.2          Francisco Rodriguez    1.82     13.2
Troy Percival          1.92     10.9          Ramon Ortiz            2.76      6.2
Scot Shields           1.96      5.5          Troy Percival          2.90      6.0
Brendan Donnelly       2.17      9.8          Brendan Donnelly       3.00     12.0
Ben Weber              2.54      5.0          Scot Shields           3.33      9.3
Scott Schoeneweis      3.25      6.8          Kevin Gregg            4.21      8.6
------------------------------------          ------------------------------------
TOTAL                  2.98      7.0          TOTAL                  3.47      9.1

This year’s bullpen has a higher ERA, but they’ve actually been more dominant when it comes to striking batters out, with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings as a group, which led all of baseball. In the late innings, the Angels will turn to Brendan Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez to set up Troy Percival just as they did in 2002, and while Percival isn’t the same pitcher he was back then, Rodriguez is and Donnelly might be even better.

The area where the Angels have perhaps changed the most is on defense, where their current group is significantly worse than the unit they trotted out in 2002. They moved their best defensive player and one of the best handful of defenders in all of baseball, Darin Erstad, from center field to first base. Erstad has done an excellent job at first, but a tumble down the defensive spectrum for a player that good at playing center field is like putting a parka on Jessica Alba and saying, “Hey, she’s still really cute.” In Erstad’s place, the Angels shifted Garret Anderson, a solid but unspectacular defensive leftfielder to center field, while replacing him in left with Jose Guillen and now Adam Riggs.

Troy Glaus, their regular third baseman in 2002, is now the designated hitter, with either Chone Figgins or Dallas McPherson replacing him at the hot corner. And perhaps Anaheim’s most underrated defender, second baseman Adam Kennedy, is out for the year. All together, it is a defense that, while still respectable, is nowhere near the out-making machine that quietly was a huge part of their success in 2002, and the stats back it up. Anaheim led the AL by converting 71.9% of balls in play hit against them into outs in 2002, but this year they rank just eighth in the league, making outs 68.8% of the time.

Let’s see … are we forgetting anything? Oh, that’s right, the Boston Red Sox. Here I am getting so caught up in Anaheim’s weekend series with the A’s and their return to the postseason that I forgot about their opponents. A couple weeks ago, I argued that the Red Sox might be the best team in the American League, stronger than any of the contenders in the AL West, stronger than the Twins in the Central, and even stronger than the AL East champion Yankees.

Obvious this sort of thinking ignores actual wins and losses, where the Red Sox ranked second in the league, three games behind the Yankees. If you do look beyond that, you see that the Red Sox led the league in runs scored by over 50 runs — to which you might say “yeah, but Fenway is a hitter’s park” — and ranked fourth in the league in runs allowed, behind only Minnesota, Oakland and Anaheim. Their run differential of +180 was first in the AL and their “expected record” from that differential is an impressive 97-65.

In addition to that, they benefit as much as any team from being able to lean more heavily on their best starting pitchers in the postseason, as Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, who combined to go 37-15 with a 3.57 ERA, are about as good as any 1-2 punch around. The rest of their rotation is a little shaky, but Bronson Arroyo seems to have separated himself from Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield by going 9-8 with a 4.09 ERA in 28 starts.

Boston’s bullpen also benefits from being able to rely on fewer contributors during the postseason. Keith Foulke is solid at the end of games and more capable of pitching multiple innings in key spots than most closers, and their setup group, led by Mike Timlin from the right side and Alan Embree from the left side, while not great, is decent. Plus, as they showed last October, both Wakefield and Lowe are able to move back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen when needed.

As for the offense, even accounting for the significant boost they get from Fenway Park, it’s a very dangerous group. The Red Sox led the AL in runs scored overall and were also first in home offense by a considerable margin, outscoring the Rangers (who also play in a great hitter’s ballpark) by 26 runs and out-OPSing them by 47 points. When they were away from Fenway, Boston’s offense wasn’t nearly as good, but they still managed to rank fourth in the league in road OPS, slightly ahead of Anaheim.

Home or road, a lineup that features the following on-base percentages is scary:

Manny Ramirez       .397
Jason Varitek       .390
Kevin Millar        .383
David Ortiz         .380
Johnny Damon        .380
Trot Nixon          .377
Mark Bellhorn       .373
Bill Mueller        .365
Orlando Cabrera     .306

The AL as a whole had a .340 on-base percentage this year, which means eight of Boston’s nine regulars had an OBP that was sigificantly above average, with only Orlando Cabrera falling below average. Not surprisingly, the Red Sox led the league with a .360 team OBP.

In the end, I think this series comes down to a few key factors:

1) Is Pedro Martinez going to pitch like Pedro?

I’m not talking 1998 Pedro, because that guy is long gone, but is he going to be the guy who finished the year with three straight rough outings where he gave up a combined 19 runs in 17.1 innings, or is he the guy who had a 3.43 ERA before that rough stretch? This might be the key to the entire series, not to mention the rest of Boston’s postseason chances.

2) Who can defend their homefield advantage?

Thanks to winning their division, the Angels will host three of the five games in this series despite having a worse record than Boston. However, the Angels weren’t all that great at home this year, going just 45-36 for the seventh-best home record in the AL. Meanwhile, the Red Sox were surprisingly good on the road, finishing strong at Tampa Bay and Baltimore to end the year at 43-38 away from Fenway, good for third-best in the league.

On the other hand, the games at Fenway Park should be interesting, as the Red Sox are 108-54 at home over the last two years, including 55-26 this year, which ranked second in the AL. Of course, the Angels have been great on the road this season, with a league-best 47-34 record away from Anaheim. Normally you’d think the Angels would have a good shot of winning the two games in Boston, except they’re running into one of the best home teams in baseball. And you’d think the Red Sox would dread going on the road for three of the five games, except the Angels haven’t been all that great at defending their home turf.

3) Can the Angels get to their bullpen?

The idea of Anaheim’s starting pitchers — with ERAs of 3.93, 4.64, 4.67 and 5.01 — going up against Boston’s league-leading offense is probably a pretty scary one for Angels fans. While Escobar, Colon and Lackey have been better in the second half, they haven’t been great, so I’d probably throw out any ideas of shutting down the Red Sox. Instead, the key will be keeping the game manageable and turning things over to that dangerous Anaheim bullpen.

If I had to guess — and since this is a playoff preview, I think I probably should — I’d say the Red Sox will win their games in the early innings, with their bullpen being given a lead and slamming the door, and the Angels will win their games in the late innings, with their bullpen being asked to hold Boston’s offense in check until Anaheim’s hitters can bust through.

This really is a tough series to pick a winner for, and certainly tougher than it would have been with Oakland playing Boston. While the Angels have the better bullpen, that doesn’t help them much unless the game is close in the late innings. The Red Sox have the better, deeper offense and far better starting pitching, and should be able to score enough runs on Anaheim’s starters early to minimize the impact of the Angels’ relievers. This is Boston’s series to lose, and they won’t if Foulke can hold leads late. I think he will.

Red Sox in five.

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