Every year in the World Series, managers have some tough decisions to make. This year is no exception, with many things for the two managers to juggle, things like the parks, using/not using the designated hitter, and setting up a rotation keeping Clint Hurdle and Terry Francona up at night. Let’s examine some of these seemingly small things that could play a huge role.
What influence will the parks have?
No park in the American League influences play more than Fenway Park. No park in the National League influences play more than Coors Field. Fenway, with the Green Monster and its assorted nooks and crannies, can be brutal on opposing outfielders. All three starting outfielders for the Rockies have played in Fenway before, but only for a few games each and none this year. Don’t be surprised to see a misplay on a ball off the wall in left or in the right field.
Also, the strength of the Rockies’ outfield is their range. This will be limited in the cozy Fenway outfield. Lastly, the Rockies led the NL in ground ball percentage during the regular season, so they might not be well equipped to take advantage of the short fences.
On the other hand, Coors has huge gaps in right and left center. Manny Ramirez has the lowest RZR of any left fielder in the game and it isn’t even close. Now, the Green Monster probably has something to do with it, but Manny is far from a gazelle out there. If the Rockies can get a few in that gap, they could be running for a long time. Coors also offers the thin air that inflates home runs and straightens out curveballs. We will touch on this effect more when we talk about the rotations.
How much better is the Rockies’ defense?
The Rockies rightly have been lauded for their team defense during this postseason. They set the record for fewest errors by a team this year. While not committing errors is good, getting to balls that another player might not is good as well. The Rockies are solid in more advanced metrics like Defense Efficiency (.703), team RZR .835, and Plus/Minus +58, which take range into account. They are indeed a very solid defense, near the top in the league.
What is commonly missed, though, is that Boston also has a pretty good defense. In fact, the Sox have a better Defense Efficiency (.712) than the Rockies. This is partly due to their strong pitching staff, which has given them easier balls to handle. Their team RZR is just .810, with a plus/minus of 32, with their pitching staff checking in at an amazing 41 plus/minus. The Rockies have an edge here, but it is smaller than most people think.
The other part of defense not included in these metrics is base running, specifically, stolen bases. Neither Jason Varitek nor Yorvit Torrealba is great at throwing out would-be base stealers, with Varitek at 24%, and Torrealba at 20% during the year. Both teams were about league average in stolen bases this year, but have a couple of guys who were adept thieves. Julio Lugo and Coco Crisp for Boston and Willy Taveras and Kaz Matsui for Colorado will be the main threats on the bases. Of course, if/when Tim Wakefield takes the mound for the Red Sox, all this goes out the window. Expect to see the Rockies try to take advantage by green lighting almost everyone on their roster.
Who will DH for the Rockies? Who sits on the bench for the Red Sox?
When the games are in Fenway, the Rockies will have a few options for their designated hitter. Ryan Spilborghs has logged the most time off the Rockies bench this year, but he really has trouble with righthanded pitchers. Because the Red Sox will be starting all righthanders, look for Hurdle to use either Seth Smith or Cory Sullivan, who both bat lefthanded. I would go with Smith, who mashed righthanded pitching in Triple-A this year. Sullivan has a lot more experience, but actually hit lefties better this year and has only a tiny platoon split in the last three years.
When the action shifts to Colorado, Boston is going to be faced with a big dilemma—what to do with David Ortiz. Tim Kurkjian does a good job of summarizing the possibilities for ESPN. Ortiz has played just seven games at first this year, and putting him there means either moving Kevin Youkilis to another position—hurting the defense even more— or sitting him. Probably the best choice would be to platoon Ortiz and Youkillis at first, having a huge bat waiting for a key pinch-hitting situation.
What should the rotations look like?
For the Rockies, righthander Aaron Cook says he is healthy enough to pitch in the series, but he didn’t do too well in a simulated game late last week. Cook pitched extremely well when healthy this year, but he hasn’t pitched since Aug. 10. As Clay Davenport points out, the Red Sox are better against righthanders than lefties. I think this has been overblown a bit, though. As a team, Boston hit .277/.358/.450 versus righthanders during the regular season and .285/.373/.428 against lefthanders. The pitcher Cook would replace is rookie lefty Franklin Morales, who hasn’t pitched well in the postseason but was lights out in the regular season. This would allow Morales to move to the bullpen, adding a third lefthanded freliever, but would he be nearly as valuable there?
This is a tough decision for Hurdle. I would probably start with Morales in the rotation and Cook in long relief, but either decision is very defensible. If Hurdle goes with Morales, he should start him in game two because David Ortiz will certainly be playing in that game. If Cook is the choice, then game three looks more reasonable, pushing up the other Rockies rookie, fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez.
The last choice for Hurdle is whether to pitch Jeff Francis on three days rest. If he does, he could have Francis start games one, four, and seven. If he uses four starters, then Francis would go in games one and five and probably be available in the bullpen for games six and/or seven. The Rockies’ foirth starter would be Josh Fogg, who is a pretty big dropoff from Francis. That said, Francis has never started a game on three days rest in the majors, so I suspect Hurdle will choose the latter. He should probably make this decision earlier rather than later, though, as Fogg could be a useful arm in the bullpen.
As for the Red Sox, manager Terry Francona also finds himself in what a difficult situation. He has the same decision as Hurdle does with Josh Beckett and will probably make the same decision and pitch Beckett on regular rest, as he did in the ALCS. Some other influences, though, should make Francona think twice in this series. First, Wakefield should not be allowed to pitch in Coors Field. He’s the pitcher who would most be affected by the ball not bending at altitude. Also, if Wakefield is on the mound, Doug Mirabelli will be behind the plate. With one big bat already out of the Boston lineup because there’s no DH, can the Red Sox afford to have Mirabelli hitting, too? Secondly, without the extra off day breaking up this series, there will be fewer opportunities to use Beckett in relief.
It sounds like Francona is leaning toward pitching Curt Schilling in game two, which would set him up to pitch in game six. That fills up all the Fenway slots. It seems like you would want Schilling pitching two games in the series and Wakefield one, but if that means Wakefield has to pitch at Coors, it may not be worth it. A real long shot would be to start lefthander Jon Lester in game four. The Rockies hit righthanders to the tune of .281/.355/.443 during the regular season but were only .277/.352/.420 against lefties. If Lester is in the rotation, though, that leaves just one southpaw in the bullpen.
Will the Red Sox out Moneyball the Rockies?
Moneyball stresses that bases on balls are very important. No matter who is starting for each team, a huge key will be which pitching staff throws more strikes. Both Boston and Colorado walked like crazy this year. Boston led all of baseball in drawing 689 walks and Colorado led the NL, walking 622 times. Even when these teams weren’t walking, they were getting into good hitters counts and then doing damage. Normally, you see a high correlation between walks and power, but both the Red Sox and the Rockies were middle of the pack with 166 and 171 home runs respectively. This shows that each team really is very selective at the plate.
On the other side of the coin, both pitching staffs did a good job of limiting walks. The Red Sox were ninth in their league, allowing 504 walks, and the Rockies were a tick better, walking just 482 for seventh best. The Red Sox did strike out 1,149 batters this year while the Rockies managed just 967. This looks like a big advantage for Boston, but with the superior defense behind them, not striking out a lot of batters isn’t so huge a deal.
Where have all the LOOGYs gone?
Normally in the playoffs, rosters are filled with a couple of lefthanded one out guys, but that isn’t the case with these teams. Both have several options in the bullpen but none of them are exactly known as lefty killers.Jon Lester was a little better against lefthanded hitters this year, but he was a starter during the season and Hideki Okajima was actually better against righthanders. They do have Javier Lopez who was used in that role this year but lefthanders hit him to the tune of .293/.366/.439 this year. His three year platoon split looks a little better but he is shaky at best.
The Rockies are in the same boat with Jeremy Affeldt, a converted starter, who was better against righthanders and former closer Brian Fuentes, who was great against everyone this year. Fuentes is probably the best lefty-killer in the bunch, but his time will probably be occupied with the heart of the Red Sox order in close games. That will leave Affeldt and maybe Morales to face the bottom part of the Red Sox order, which will feature a lot of lefthanded and switch-hitting bats including J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, and Coco Crisp/Jacob Ellsbury. The Indians had little answer for this part of the Red Sox lineup late in the ALCS and the Rockies, and Affeldt or Morales in particular, will have to do better if they hope to win the series.
For the Red Sox, it will be interesting to see what Francona does with the Rockies’ lefthanded hitters. Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe are all stars against righties but below league average against lefthanders. Francona has mostly used Okajima as his primary setup man all year and I expect him to be used in that role this series. Will Lester be called upon as a LOOGY in the sixth or seventh inning or will Francona roll the dice with Lopez or one of his solid righthanded relievers to handle Helton and Hawpe?
Quickly after Boston dispatched Cleveland to win the ALCS, Las Vegas had a betting line up for the World Series. Currently, the line suggests the Red Sox will win almost 70% of the time. Almost as quickly, Clay Davenport was running his Monte Carlo simulation to determine each team’s chances. As he sees it, the Rockies are a slight favorite, at 56%. Part of the reason for this disparity is the vital decisions the managers will make.
I guess I have to make a prediction now. The Red Sox clearly would be the better team if both teams played in the same division over 162 games. Fortunately for the Rockies, this is a seven-game, head-to-head series. The Rockies seem to match up well with the Red Sox in a few key areas, but I don’t think it will be quite enough. The Red Sox win, four games to two.