You could make a relatively simple case for why the Red Sox will beat the Angels in the ALDS and leave it at that.
Although Boston only won two more games (96 to 94) than Los Angeles, they outscored their opponents by 210 runs, while the Angels only managed a 91-run differential. So Boston’s expected win total for the season was actual 103, while the Angels should have won 90 games. Two games isn’t much to base a decision on, but 13 games is, and that maybe closer to the true difference in talent between these two teams.
But we want to delve deeper and find more answers about who should win, so let’s start with the pitching matchups. We know the first three games will be Josh Beckett against John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka against Kelvim Escobar and Curt Schilling against Jered Weaver. Games four and five (if they get that far) will almost certainly be a repeat of games one and two.
The first game looks pretty even. Beckett posted a 3.27 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.70 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.85 strikeout to walk ratio for the Red Sox while, Lackey had a 3.01 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.19 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.44 strikeouts per walk. Adjusting for parks, there’s not much to choose one over the other.
In the second matchup, Matsuzaka had a 4.40 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.84 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.51 strikeouts per walk while Escobar was at a 3.40 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.36 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.42 strikeouts per walk. Even if you assume that Matsuzaka’s solid last start against Minnesota is a sign that he’s pulled out of his second-half slump, you still have to give the edge to Escobar.
The third matchup features Schilling with a 3.87 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 6.02 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.39 strikeouts per walk against Weaver with a 3.91 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 6.43 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.56 strikeouts per walk. With a park adjustment, Schilling has a bit of an advantage and you could definitely make a case that he gets another boost because of his postseason experience (2.06 ERA in 15 playoff games).
So, if these pitchers were facing the same lineups, we’d have one even matchup, one advantage for the Angels and one advantage for the Red Sox. But they won’t be facing the same lineups.
While not the juggernaut it was earlier this decade, Boston’s offense was still one of the better ones in the AL. The Red Sox scored 867 runs, 45 more than the Angels. Even when you account for the ballparks, Boston’s offense is still a bit better.
But more than that, the styles of the offenses should play into Boston’s favor.
The Angels score runs by putting the ball in play and making things happen. They had the third-lowest total in the AL for both home runs (123) and strikeouts (883), and their 507 walks were a bit below the league average of 536.
Against the Yankees or Indians, both of whom have mediocre defenses at best, this would play to their advantage. Against the Red Sox, it doesn’t. Boston’s defensive efficiency (the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs) was .712, second-best in the majors behind Toronto.
The Angels may find it more difficult to get hits against a top-notch defense, which means stringing enough of them together for a big inning will be very hard. And with below average power, they can’t really hope to make up for the decrease in seeing-eye singles by blasting a few out of the park.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, really on patience to drive their offense. Boston’s batting average of .279 is worse than the .284 mark the Angels put up, but a league-best 689 walks gave the Red Sox a .362 on-base percentage. The Angels checked in at .345.
Actually, a big factor in determining who wins this series is probably which team can deny the other team what it wants to do.
The Angels don’t want to strike out because they need to put the ball in play and hope something good happens. But the Red Sox struck out 1149 batters this season, third best in the AL. And Beckett, Matsuzaka and the four relievers likely to see the most action all struck out better than eight batters per nine innings.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, don’t care how much they strike out as long as they draw enough walks to have runners on when they come up with an extra-base hit. But the Angels issued only 477 free passes this season, third-best in the AL.
The problem for the Angels goes back to the defense. Even if the Angels succeed at limiting the walks the Red Sox like to draw and the Red Sox fail to limit the balls in play the Angels like to accumulate, the Angels still have to get those balls in play past an excellent defense. And speaking of defense, while the Red Sox don’t rely on putting the ball in play, it will still help them that the Angels have a .688 defensive efficiency, good for 24th in all of baseball.
The other thing to keep in mind when comparing the offenses is that the Red Sox may be hitting the playoffs at their best. David Ortiz appears to finally be over the injuries that nagged him much of the season, as he posted his best numbers in September. J.D. Drew also had an excellent September after failing to live up to his big contract the rest of the season. As a team, Boston had an .839 OPS in September compared to an .806 mark overall for the season.
So when looking at the overall offensive picture, it appears Boston has at least a slight advantage. And if the hot September means anything and the offensive styles of each team play into Boston’s favor as much as it appears they could, that advantage could grow substantially.
Ultimately, though, the teams have pretty evenly matched starting pitchers and both teams have quality, although very different, lineups. Which means the series may come down to the bullpens, and that’s where things get a little tricky.
The closers are the easy part. Jonathan Papelbon posted a 1.85 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 12.96 strikeouts per nine innings and 5.6 strikeouts per walk and he was pretty clearly better than Francisco Rodriguez, who allowed more runs (2.81 ERA), more base runners (1.25 WHIP) and although he struck out nearly as many batters (12.03 strikeouts per nine innings), he allowed many more free passes (2.65 strikeouts per walk). Neither closer is necessarily likely to blow a save, but Papelbon (37 saves in 40 chances) has been a better bet than Rodriguez (40 saves in 40 chances).
Whether Boston has an advantage in the rest of the bullpen depends on whether Terry Francona uses Manny Delcarmen in important spots, whether Eric Gagne remembers how to throw strikes and whether Hideki Okajima‘s arm has recovered from being tired.
Delcarmen has been Boston’s second- or third-best reliever this season, but he’s frequently been behind both Gagne and Mike Timlin on the depth chart. If Francona’s smart, he’ll use Delcarmen to get to Okajima and Papelbon.
Okajima was Boston’s best reliever for much of the season, but a terrible August and September raised his ERA from 0.87 at the end of July to 2.22 at the end of the season. He did pitch two scoreless innings at the end of the season after taking nearly two weeks to rest his arm, and Boston hopes that’s a sign that he’s back to where he was earlier this year.
Gagne has been a pretty big mess since being traded to Boston. He did pitch 4.2 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts and two walks to end the season, but Francona will have to keep him on a very short leash if he uses him in an important situation.
Still, even with the question marks surrounding Boston’s bullpen, it looks better than that of the Angels. Aside from Rodriguez, Justin Speier (2.88 ERA) has been the best reliever for the Angels. Scot Shields, who has normally been a reliable set-up man for the Angels, has struggled to a 3.86 ERA thanks to nearly four walks per nine innings. And the only other pitcher who saw significant time for the Angels and posted a sub-4.00 ERA is Darren Oliver (3.78), who also struggles to avoid walks.
So, when you break the teams down, you see that the starting pitchers are fairly even, but Boston has at least a small advantage on offense, defense and in the bullpen. And that’s why the Red Sox will win, probably in four games.
References & Resources
Disagree? Check out why Sean Smith thinks the Angels will win.