This should be a fairly easy article to write. I’ll just take the articles I’ve written in the past, update some names (Kendry Morales playing the switch-hitting first base masher instead of Mark Teixeira, Scott Kazmir starring as the power pitcher instead of Kelvim Escobar) and resubmit. And I’ll hope this time ends with a different result.
The difference between the two teams, in terms of talent displayed over the regular season, is negligible. The Angels won two more games. Based on runs scored and runs allowed, there is again little difference. The Angels have a Pythagorean record of 93-69, the Red Sox 94-68. The Angels won the head-to head-matchup, five games to four.
Once the playoffs are set, the Yankees will almost certainly choose the series with an off day between games one and two. The Angels made this choice last year, and in retrospect it was not a good idea. They allowed the Red Sox to bring back Jon Lester in game four, instead of facing Tim Wakefield (who would have faced Jered Weaver). Putting the choice in the hands of the Yankees should ensure the optimal match-up for the Angels. The Angels have a bit of an edge in starting pitching depth, while the Red Sox probably have the best pitcher in the series in Lester.
The Angels have a slight edge in team offense. They finished second in the majors with a team record 883 runs scored. The Red Sox remain dangerous as well, with 872 runs scored. The team OBPs are about even, .352 for Boston and .350 for the Angels. The Red Sox have more power, a 13-point edge in slugging percentage, but when you consider ballparks, the Angels pull even in park adjusted OPS+, at 104, according to baseball-reference.com.
The Angels have one of the most balanced lineups I’ve ever seen. They’ve hit for a .285 team average despite not having a single player above .312. Counting top sub Maicer Izturis, nine of the 10 hitters with the most plate appearances are hitting between .287 and .312, with the exception being Mike Napoli at .272. They aren’t empty batting average,s either. All 10 have an OPS+ of at least 100 (with team leader Morales and Torii Hunter the only players above 120). There is no easy out, not even a below-average offensive player, unless Scioscia starts Jeff Mathis ahead of Napoli. Mike, please don’t do this. Beating the Red Sox is hard enough. Don’t forget the only playoff game you’ve ever won against Boston, when Napoli took Josh Beckett deep twice.
The defensive edge of Mathis, if it exists at all, is very slight, unlike the offensive difference between the two. Mathis threw out 26 percent of basestealers, Napoli 22 percent. Napoli made one more error; Mathis allowed one more passed ball. Over the summer, Matt Welch, writing on Halos Heaven, found that Angels starting pitchers threw just as well to Napoli as they did with Mathis, with the exception being Ervin Santana. Considering a) Santana is in the bullpen this series and b) Santana threw a complete game shutout to clinch the division with Napoli behind the plate, having Mathis start for Santana’s sake is not necessary. Some of the more advanced statistics on baseball-reference find a few other areas where Mathis has an edge on Napoli. Mathis had 11 tag outs to Napoli’s nine, despite catching 100 fewer innings. And Mathis recorded an out on 83 percent of bunts fielded (75 percent for Napoli). But let’s not get carried away. That difference means Mathis would be expected to get one or two extra outs on bunts per year. Napoli hit 15 more home runs than Mathis.
In starting pitching, Kazmir could be the difference maker. He has a history of pitching well against the Red Sox. His 23 career starts against them are nine more than he has against any regular season opponent, and he made two more in the ALCS last season. His 3.59 ERA against them is about a run and a half below what a typical pitcher would do against the powerful offenses the Red Sox have had in recent years. Kazmir would have been the one to eliminate Boston in five games last year had his bullpen been able to hold a seven-run lead. He allowed two hits and three walks that game, striking out seven in six scoreless innings.
And that reminds me of the biggest problem with this Angels team. The bullpen is not very good. Brian Fuentes has 48 saves, but has not pitched well at all. He allows a scary number of base runners, and every time he comes to the mound is an adventure. He can blame umpire Rick Reed for blowing the Sept. 16 game at Fenway, when Nick Green walked on a three-ball, four-strike count, but Fuentes has only himself to blame for loading the bases after getting the first two outs. In 55 innings he allowed 82 base runners, and that is just dangerous, especially against a good hitting team with a history of maddening comebacks.
Kevin Jepsen has pitched great in the second half, with a 38-10 strikeout/walk ratio and only one home run allowed. He’s been hit hard in his last few appearances, but his velocity is still around 97 mph, so I don’t think it’s anything more than a fluke. Jason Bulger has had a fine season, but experienced shoulder tightness and may not even be available for the postseason roster. Darren Oliver had great numbers on the season, but any team that expects Oliver to carry it in the postseason is going to have a very short stay there.
The best chance for the Angels is if they give the ball to Santana in crucial situations. Santana’s 2009 numbers don’t look good, but this is a guy with an electric arm, who struck out 214 batters last year, and after dealing with injuries in the first half, finally appears to be at his top form. His last start was a complete game shutout to clinch the division over the Texas Rangers. In the second half of the season, Santana pitched 99 innings with a 77-30 strikeout/ walk ratio. His 3.90 ERA over that time is not as good as his excellent 2008 season, but right in line with his preseason projections.
The Boston bullpen is loaded. Jon Papelbon is one of the three best closers in the game along with Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan. Billy Wagner, a late season pickup, is one of the most dominant left-handed relievers of all time and apparently has a bit left, with 22 strikeouts in 13.2 innings. Rookie Daniel Bard can hit 100 mph and has struck out 61 in 48 innings. After these guys you still have Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima. They have the stronger bullpen; to win this series the Angels need to have their starters go deep into games.
Why will this season be different? The Angels have the offense this time. Remember the last game of 2007? The final score was a 9-1 blowout but the Angels had chances. Their best chance was with two out and two on against Curt Schilling in the third. At the time it was a scoreless game. Vladimir Guerrero was up, and Schilling pitched around him. Vlad hit 27 homers that year. Only Gary Matthews Jr. (18) and Garret Anderson (16) had more than 11. Matthews was hurt that day, and Anderson had to leave the game early with an eye injury. So what did Schilling do? He walked Vlad and then retired weak-hitting Reggie Willits with the bases loaded.
That situation won’t happen again. Vlad isn’t the only power threat anymore, thanks to Morales, Hunter, Juan Rivera, Napoli and Bobby Abreu. They know they can beat the Red Sox—they’ve done enough of it in the regular season. It’s about time they do it in the playoffs.