After doing a full position-by-position review of the Red Sox and Angels matchup the past few days, I feel confident that the Red Sox are the better team and should be headed to the ALCS. I could sit here and talk about history and records, but the big factor is pitching and trade deadline deals. The Red Sox have the better pitching going in and also made two moves to fill some glaring holes in their lineup. They still have some question marks and troubles on defense, but they should have the players to win in four games.
The season matchup, as usually is the case, doesn’t say much. The Angels won the season series 5-4, but all except the last series in September took place before May 15. Both teams have changed since then, and both had veteran hitters in David Ortiz and Bobby Abreu who had yet to hit a single homer between them. The Sox were also counting on Nick Green and Julio Lugo to man shortstop, and that was turning out to be a losing rotation.
The one weakness that could end up hurting the Red Sox is team defense. It leads to extra hits and hurts the pitching staff. The Red Sox team has combined for a UZR of -18.1, and the Angels have a +10.0. That doesn’t accurately reflect where the teams stand now, but it shows the struggles the Sox have faced this year.
The pitchers have been scheduled, and for Game One Jon Lester(3.41 ERA, 3.52 K/BB) will face off with John Lackey(3.83 ERA, 2.96 K/BB). Next up is Josh Beckett (3.86 ERA, 3.62 K/BB) going against Jered Weaver (3.75 ERA, 2.64 K/BB) in Game Two. The Game Three matchup is young star Clay Buchholz (4.21 ERA, 1.89 K/BB) going against former Ray Scott Kazmir (4.89 ERA, 1.95 K/BB).
These are all really good matchups and are sure to give us a great start to the series. Each matchup gives a small edge to the Sox, though, and looking forward to Game Four, we could see Lester on short rest go against Joe Saunders if the Sox feel it’s necessary. Otherwise it may be Daisuke Matsuzaka if the Sox want to avoid overusing Lester’s arm.
Lester has reached a new level this year, with a real growth in skills and a big jump in K/9 to 9.96. He has really worked on his control and it has paid off big time. He is facing a very good starter in Lackey, but he is better in his ability to miss bats and avoid walks. He also has a slightly better groundball rate.
I have my doubts about how much the back injury is hurting Beckett, and Will Carroll commented that his back is causing a velocity decrease and less movement. This seems to be the case and part of what caused the 12 homers against him in August. His K/BB numbers have stayed strong, but there have been more pitches left up in the zone and belted. Hopefully he can keep it together, and even though his velocity was down against the Indians, his stuff was all down in the zone. Weaver was passed over in the ALDS last year and didn’t make an appearance. His skills are much better than Joe Saunders’, and he would have been a better choice in 2008 too.
In the last matchup, you have two pitchers who have been much better lately and have the following lines in September: Buchholz (3.98 ERA, 2.91 K/BB), Kazmir (1.73 ERA, 2.60 K/BB). The difference has been that Buchholz has upped his strikeout rate and lowered his walks, but Kazmir has lost strikeouts again and lowered his walks. It’s an interesting matchup, and the closest of the three scheduled games.
Heading to the bullpen, the Sox have the advantage here since the Angels’ pen is in flux as Francisco Rodriguez has headed east and Scot Shields isn’t the Scot Shields of old. The Angels’ best pitchers in the pen have been Darren Oliver and Jason Bulger. Matt Palmer has a 2.86 ERA, but with a K/BB of 1.00 we know that won’t be close to his true talent. They have been very disappointed in Brian Fuentes this year, and with a K/BB of 1.96 don’t be surprised to see him limited.
Only two of the Angels’ heavily used relievers have K/BB numbers greater than 2.50. On the other side the Red Sox have four relievers over that mark. Those relievers are Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard and Billy Wagner (only 12 innings). The Red Sox will lean heavily on this group as their way to get from the 7th inning to the final out.
When we come to the offense, there is a lot to be said that these teams are fairly close in value. The Red Sox have a team wOBA of .352, compared with the Angels’ .346, but that fails to fully account for the value of the newly acquired Victor Martinez. His role in this series is huge, as the Red Sox wOBA was up to .360 in September. At the same time, with Vladimir Guerrero struggling this year, the Angels were down to a wOBA of .322 in September.
The Angels hold an advantage at leadoff hitter, with Chone Figgins turning into an elite on-base guy. Jacoby Ellsbury is still fighting this, and the .350 OBP has been a drag. This seems to be the biggest weakness for the Sox, as they match up on offense very well.
Behind the plate the Sox now have a huge advantage with Martinez at catcher. While the Angels have the power-hitting Mike Napoli his on-base skills make his overall value short of Martinez. This is the same case with first base, as Kevin Youkilishas better on-base skills but gets outslugged by Kendry Morales.
Looking around the infield, the only other advantage for the Sox is Dustin Pedroia. The reigning MVP has regressed a bit this year, but is 5 Wins Above Replacement from a second baseman anything to be ashamed of? On the other side is Howie Kendrick, who has finally started to put it together since coming back from Triple-A, but has yet to do it for as long as Pedroia and still not as well.
The rest of the infield and outfield is very closely tied together. There is not much offense at shortstop between Alex Gonzalez and either of the Angels’ options (Erick Aybar or Maicer Izturis). The outfield has one solid OBP guy for each team in Bobby Abreu and J.D. Drew, while they have speedy guys in center, although Torii Hunter has much better power. Jason Bay is a much better offensive left fielder than Juan Rivera, but that’s negated by the power of Hunter and the advantage of Figgins over Mike Lowell at third.
Overall, offense will not separate these teams, but the edge has to go to the Red Sox. This advantage also comes down to the DH position. David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero have been up and down this season, but both had strong runs in the second half. The difference is Guerrero has looked worn down and struggled in September with an OPS of .672. Ortiz has gotten better, and even though his average and OBP have still not returned, he has posted an OPS over .825 every month since May.
The Angels are solid on defense for sure, with Abreu as the only real defensive liability among starters, with a UZR of -9.8. On the other side the Sox have Ellsbury, Bay and Lowell with UZR scores worse than that. If the series comes down to a defensive play, it’s likely to be the Angels headed to the ALCS, so the Sox need to avoid using too many pitchers who let the Angels put the ball into play.
The Sox are ahead slightly in offense and solidly in pitching from both the scheduled starters and the bullpen. With only defense a problem for them, I see the Red Sox taking this series in four games. The Sox have not had trouble taking the ALDS from the Angels, but history won’t affect this series. The Red Sox have the better team again this year.