The Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels are meeting in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row and the third time in five years. The Red Sox swept the Angels in 2004 and 2007, and while that probably won’t help them this year, it certainly won’t hurt either.
The simple fact is that the Red Sox have a better team than the Angels. Boston outscored its opponents by 151 runs this season, while the Angels only outscored theirs by 68. The run differentials say the Red Sox should have been eight games better than the Angels, not five games worse. You can scoff at run differentials all you want, but last year they said the Red Sox should have been 13 games better the Angels and then they went out and pounded the Angels into oblivion.
Realistically, this series could go either way as the teams are very evenly matched, despite the fact that the Angels took eight of nine during the regular season. It’s worth noting that of those nine games, only four featured a Boston starting pitcher who is likely to make a start in this series, so what happened in those games isn’t really all that informative.
Speaking of pitchers likely to make a start in this series, let’s get down to those matchups. Since this is the extended series (if they go the full five games, it will take them eight days), both teams can get by with just three starting pitchers. Games 1 and 4 will feature Boston’s Jon Lester (3.21 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 2.3 K/BB) against LA’s John Lackey (3.75 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 3.3 K/BB). Games 2 and 5 will pit Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka (2.90 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 1.6 K/BB) against LA’s Ervin Santana (3.49 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 4.6 K/BB). And Game 3 will be Boston’s Josh Beckett (4.03 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 5.1 K/BB) vs. LA’s Joe Saunders (3.41 ERA, 4.7 K/9, 1.9 K/BB).
As you can see, all six of those pitchers are quite good. The Red Sox would rather have had Beckett going in Games 1 and 4 because of his history as a postseason ace, but he’s actually only been their third-best option most of the year.
Lester has been Boston’s most consistent pitcher this season. When you account for their home parks, he’s been a good bit better than Lackey. If you were going to award the advantage to one pitcher or the other based on what they’ve done this season, you’d have to give it to Lester. Lackey obviously has a longer track record of success, but aside from his near no-hitter in July, not much of that success has come against the Red Sox (including the playoffs, he has a 4.71 ERA against them in eight starts over the past four seasons).
Matsuzaka was third in the AL in ERA, but he also led the league in walks. However, as far as weaknesses go, that’s a good one to have against the Angels, who were 12th in the AL with 481 walks this season. Matsuzaka was so effective despite his wildness because he was so hard to hit; he allowed a .211 batting average that was easily the best for any pitcher who threw at least 160 innings (and second to Justin Duchscherer among pitchers who tossed at least 100 innings). Santana was certainly less maddening for fans of his team than Matsuzaka, but he was not a more effective pitcher overall.
The third game is the only one where the Angels appear to have an advantage based on this season, but Beckett’s peripherals suggest a pitcher with better than a 4.03 ERA and his postseason resume is outstanding (1.73 ERA in 72.2 innings). The big concern is his health, which is the reason he’s not starting Game 1. If his oblique allows him to pitch up to his capabilities on Sunday, it would be hard to argue that Saunders gives his team a better chance to win. Based on health, you probably have to give Saunders the edge here, but it’s slight.
Next we come to the bullpen, where the Angels have a closer who just set the major league record with 62 saves. But that does not mean they have the better closer in this matchup. Francisco Rodriguez converted 62 of 69 save opportunities (90 percent) with a 2.24 ERA, 10.1 K/9 and 2.3 K/BB. Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon converted 41 of 46 save opportunities (89 percent) with a 2.34 ERA, 10.0 K/9 and 9.6 K/BB.
They look pretty similar in every area except walks, where Papelbon has a significant advantage. That Rodriguez walks hitters about four times as often as Papelbon is significant because the Red Sox led the AL with 646 walks this season. If Rodriguez comes in to protect a lead in this series, his only weakness plays into the Boston offense’s biggest strength, which turns a very even matchup of closers into a very slight advantage for the Red Sox. It’s also worth noting that Rodriguez didn’t pitch more than a single inning all season, while Papelbon got more than three outs in a game 13 times. It’ll be interesting to see whether Mike Scioscia is more willing to extend K-Rod in the playoffs, and whether Rodriguez will be up to it if so.
The rest of the bullpen is very good for both teams. Boston has Justin Masterson (2.36 ERA), Javier Lopez (2.43 ERA), Hideki Okajima (2.61 ERA) and Manny Delcarmen (3.27 ERA) while LA has Jose Arredondo (1.62 ERA), Scot Shields (2.70 ERA) and Darren Oliver (2.88 ERA).
While the two teams have been pretty even with their pitching this season, Boston’s offense has been much better. The Red Sox were second in the AL with 845 runs, first with a .358 OBP and third with a .447 SLG. The Angels were 10th with 765 runs, 11th with a .330 OBP and ninth with a .413 SLG. Those numbers are somewhat misleading because the Angels didn’t have Mark Teixeira the whole season, but the offensive advantage still lies with a healthy Boston team.
The big question there is the health of Lowell and Drew. Both have been severely limited by injuries in the second half of the season and they only saw action in three games between them in the final two weeks. But the news has been positive on both early this week as they work out and it sounds like both will be ready to start Game 1.
If Drew is unable to go, the Red Sox would likely move Jacoby Ellsbury to right field and start Coco Crisp in center, which would be a downgrade, but Ellsbury and Crisp have both come on strong late in the season to make their overall numbers respectable. If Lowell can’t go, the Red Sox could move Youkilis to third and start Mark Kotsay or Sean Casey at first or move Jed Lowrie to third and start Alex Cora at shortstop.
With the injuries to Lowell and Drew and the addition of Teixeira in LA, the gap between the offenses is smaller than at first glance. However, the Red Sox still have the more consistently dangerous lineup. They’ve also added a speed element that they haven’t always had that will be more difficult for the Angels to deal with if they use Napoli at catcher in every game. Ellsbury, Pedroia and Crisp are a combined 90-for-109 (82.6 percent) on steal attempts while Napoli has only thrown out 17.5 percent of attempted base stealers this season.
The difference in quality of offense is made a little bigger by the fact that LA’s style is not particularly suited to playing against the Red Sox. Even with Teixeira and Napoli showing patience and power, the Angels as a team rely on putting the ball in play. They’re near the bottom of the league in walks and strikeouts and have fewer “defense independent” plays (walks, strikeouts, homers, hit batters) than all but four teams. So the defense is frequently a factor when the Angels are at bat.
For the Red Sox, that’s a good thing. They were fourth in the AL in defensive efficiency (the rate at which balls in play are turned into outs) and Pedroia, Lowrie, Ellsbury, Crisp and, when healthy, Drew and Lowell are all good to very good defenders. Even Bay, who’s nothing special in the outfield, helps them out because he’s a big improvement over Manny Ramirez defensively.
If Drew, Lowell and Beckett were all completely healthy, I’d say the Red Sox have a healthy advantage and might even predict another sweep. As is, Boston probably has a slight edge that could grow if those players show they can be effective.
Prediction: Red Sox in four.