Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Look at the ALCS

The ALCS is here and for the third time in 6 seasons it will be an all AL East affair. The defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the surprise of the year Tampa Bay Rays will battle it out for a World Series appearance. The Red Sox will be making their 4th LCS appearance in the last 6 years by taking the Wild Card and won their LDS match up with the Angels 3 games to 1. Meanwhile, the Rays ended 10 years of futility and won the AL East and also ended their LDS against the White Sox in 4 games.


WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE SEASON

Rays won the season series 10-8.

The home team went 15-3; Boston 7-2, Tampa Bay 8-1.

Boston outscored Tampa 87-67.

Tampa won all 6 games decided by one run.

Tampa won both extra inning games.

Boston’s average margin of victory–5.

Tampa’s average margin of victory–2.

Team scoring first was 12-6.

If their was any question about this being a rivalry with no love lost, 2008 answered that in a hurry. Not only were there the tight division race and numerous close games, but there was also some bad blood. On June 5th, tensions between the two teams boiled over after Coco Crisp, who had taken exception to the way Rays’ shortstop covered the bag on a previous Crisp steal attempt, went in hard on a steal attempt and took out Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Later in the game Rays’ manager Joe Maddon would, upon visiting the mound, get into a heated argument with Crisp, who was in the dugout at this point. The following night Rays’ starter James Shields hit Crisp in his first at-bat which resulted in Crisp charging the mound.
Despite being the younger, more inexperienced team, Tampa played their best baseball in tight situations, as evidenced by their mark in one run games. They were also able to win a crucial game in Fenway in September where they scored two runs in the ninth against Boston’s elite closer Jonathan Papelbon in order to avoid falling into a first place tie with the Sox.

While one can claim that the Rays’ ability to win tight ball games signals a very mature team, someone else could also claim that the Rays’ inability to put the Sox away and allow Boston to stay in the game signals a team that constantly lives on the edge–and that could come back to bite them. Boston was able to at times pound the Rays into submission, negating a faulty bullpen because of the big leads, something the Rays had trouble overcoming against Boston.

THE TEAMS (with MLB rankings)

Boston
.280 BA (3rd) 173 HR (12th)
845 runs scored (3rd) .358 OBP (1st)
.447 SLG (3rd) 120 SB (7th)
646 BB drawn (1st)

4.01 ERA (9th) .250 BAA (4th)
1.33 WHIP (8th) 4.00 Bullpen ERA (11th)
1.35 Bullpen WHIP (12th) .247 Bullpen BAA (9th)
68% Save Percentage (9th)

The Boston Red Sox became more of a balanced offense in 2008. Jacoby Ellsbury’s team leading 50 steals helped Boston become more of a threat on the base paths and less reliant on the long ball. This change in offensive philosophy (Boston had 3 players with 20 plus swipes) was as much about necessity as anything as David Ortiz (.264, 23, 89) had an off year as he struggled with a wrist injury and Manny Ramirez, the other half of the once most feared tandem in baseball, was shipped out of town at the trade deadline. Without the usual contributions from Manny and Papi, Boston needed to find some offensive punch elsewhere as Mike Lowell (.274, 17, 73) also struggled as he dealt with a variety of ailments and was finally shutdown for the year. Much maligned JD Drew carried the club through June with a .337 average, 12 home runs and 27 RBI. Also chipping in were outfielder Coco Crisp (.283, 7, 41, 55 runs and 20 steals), who was originally slated to be the team’s fourth outfielder but saw his playing time increase after Drew went down with back problems, Jason Bay (.293, 9, 37 in 49 games with Boston) came over in the Manny deal and contributed from the get go, and rookie Jed Lowrie (.258, 2, 46 in 56 games) came through in the clutch on a few occasions.

Despite these contributions, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis were the key cogs to the offense. Both put up great numbers and both showed their versatility in hitting almost anywhere in the line up. Little Dusty led the team with a .326 average while pounding out 213 hits, 73 for extra bases, crossing the plate 118 times and driving in 83 runs. Youk, as he is affectionately known as in Boston, led the team with 115 RBI on the strength of a .312 batting average, 29 home runs and 43 doubles.

Coming into the season there was much speculation regarding the pitching staff as rumors swirled about the possibility of Johan Santana coming over from the Twins. However, GM Theo Epstein balked at the prospect of giving up so much young talent and decided to stand pat. Ace Josh Beckett (12-10, 4.03, 174.1 IP) had an off year in part because of early season back problems, but the emergence of youngster Jon Lester helped to off set that drop in production. Lester went 16-6 with a solid 3.21 ERA and led the staff with 210.1 IP while tossing a no-hitter on May 19th. Daisuke Matsuzaka had one of the more interesting seasons a pitcher could. You would think someone an 18-3 record accompanied by a 2.90 ERA would be someone you would have worries about, but Dice-K like to live on the edge. Although he had a decent 1.32 WHIP, he walked 94 batters in just 167.2 IP and averaged just 5.7 innings per game–a big reason why he had just 14 quality starts. Despite is propensity to put runners on, have ungodly pitch counts and keep Sox fans on the edge of their seats from the time he toed the rubber, he managed to escape danger by holding hitters to a .193 BA with runners on. Tim Wakefield had another double digit win season (10-11, 4.13) but was often the victim of a lack of run support, and there was a myriad of arms that rounded out the fifth spot, including August pick Paul Byrd (4-2, 4.78 in 8 starts).

The Achilles heel of the Sox all season long has been the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon (5-4, 2.34, 41 saves, 5 blown saves) was again one of the game’s top closers this past season. However, getting the ball to him in a save situation proved to be a challenge for Terry Francona as David Aardsma, Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen and Julian Tavarez all struggled with ERAs over 5 and were mostly ineffective. Manny Delcarmen (0-1, 3.27, 18 holds) had an up and down season before finding his groove in September where he posted a 0.59 ERA. Hideki Okajima (3-2, 2.61, 23 holds) pitched well but was not the dominate 8th inning reliever that he was in the first half of last season. Meanwhile, lefty specialist Javy Lopez posted some surprising numbers with a 2.43 ERA and 10 holds in 70 appearances. However, without many arms to depend on, the Sox needed to add some depth to the bullpen but did not make a move at the deadline–possibly because of the disaster that was Eric Gagne in 2007. This prompted the Sox to take Justin Masterson out his starting role (4-3, 3.67 in 9 starts) and turn in him into a middle reliever in hopes of protecting leads in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings. The rookie responded to this new role very well and posted some solid numbers; 2-2, 2.36 and a 1.16 WHIP.
Tampa Bay

.260 BA (21st) 180 HR (10th)
774 runs scored (13th) .340 OBP (10th)
.422 SLG (13th) 142 SB (3rd)
626 BB drawn (3rd)

3.82 ERA (3rd) 1.29 WHIP (3rd)
.246 BAA (3rd) 3.55 Bull pen ERA (5th)
1.26 Bullpen WHIP (3rd) .220 Bullpen BAA (1st)
76% Save Percentage (3rd)

The Tampa Rays had suffered through 10 straight 90 loss seasons before 2008, and while there was reason to believe they would have a turn around this year with all of the young talent, no one could have foreseen this team winning 97 games and taking the AL East. What was most surprising about the Rays turn around is that they did it behind great pitching and an offense that had to manufacture runs at times. The rotation featured 5 young flame throwers, none of older than 26 years of age. James Shields, the "old man" of the group at 26, led the Rays with a 3.56 ERA while posting a 14-8 mark in 215 innings of work. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70 184.2 IP), picked up from Minnesota in the off season, Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38, 193.1 IP), Edwin Jackson (14-8, 4.42, 183.1), and Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49, 152.1 IP) round out a very good, young rotation. While the starters were impressive, the relievers were among the best in the game. Troy Percival resurrected his career with Tampa as he led the team with 28 saves and provided some much needed veteran presence in the pen. However, Percival would struggle with injuries and was largely ineffective in September. Helping to keep the pen together in the absence of their closer was Dan Wheeler (5-6. 3.12, 13 saves, 26 holds). Wheeler, a member of the 2005 NLCS winning Astros, went largely unnoticed most of the season but was arguably their best pitcher coming out of the pen. Also sharing in closing duties was the Aussie, Grant Balfour. Balfour entered the season with a career ERA of 5.48, but was dominant in his first full season in Tampa with a 1.54 ERA in 58.1 IP together with 4 saves and 14 holds. J.P. Howell (6-1, 2.22, 89.1 IP, 3 saves, 14 holds), Chad Bradford (1-0, 1.42, 19 IP in 21 games) and Trever Miller (2-0, 4.15, 43.1 IP, 2 saves, 11 holds) all made big contributions to the Rays.

While the pitching was outstanding in Tampa, the hitting was, eh, okay. No one hit .300, have an OBP of .400, hit 35 home runs, scored 100 runs, had 200 hits, drove in 120 runs or hit 40 doubles. However, somehow this team was able to manufacture runs and score enough to win ball games. Evan Longoria (.272, 27, 85) who missed 40 games mostly because of injury and not being called up until April 12th, was arguably their offensive MVP as he carried the team offensively through June and July as he hit a combined .300 with 12 home runs and 35 RBI in those two months before going down with an injury. Carlos Pena, coming off of a 40 home run season, struggled for the first three months of the season as he hit just .198 and .236 in April and May respectively before missing most of June. While he hit just .247 for the year, he did have a second half resurgence (17 HR, 55 RBI) to finish with 31 home runs and 102 RBI and bring some much needed pop to the middle of the line up. Eric Hinske (.247, 20, 60), picked up from Boston in the off season, was just one of three Rays players to hit more than 14 home runs on the season. What he line up lacked in pop they made up for it in other ways. B.J. Upton (.273, 9, 67, 44 SB), Carl Crawford (.273, 8, 57, 10 triples, 25 SB), who was expected to have missed the playoffs, Akinori Iwamura (.274, 6, 48), Jason Bartlett (.286, 1, 37) and Gabe Gross (.242, 13, 38) were able to produce offense when needed.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE ALCS

Both the Sox and Rays sport very good rotations, with the Rays having the edge at depth and the Sox at experience. While most think that this series will be a battle of pitching staffs, and a quick glance at the stats lends to that theory, but there are reasons to think that we could see an offensive explosion in this series.

First, both of these teams know how to get on base as they both finished in the top 10 in OBP and finished 1st and 3rd in drawing walks–it is also interesting to note that both teams finished in the top 10 in steals as well. While neither team features a Murderers Row of sorts, they have dynamic enough hitters and base runners that either team could turn a handful of singles and doubles into 5 or 6 runs in a hurry. Players such as Crawford, Upton, Ellsbury, Crisp, Bartlett and Pedroia negate the need for the long ball, allow their managers to employ the hit and run if need be, and keep their teams out of double play situations. Also, with their abilities to draw walks, both teams will continue to do what they did in the regular season and make pitchers work and push their pitch counts sky high. This, coupled with the playoffs not being a place where pitchers are allowed to work out of trouble, will get the bullpens active early and by game 3 we could see some tired arms give up runs late.

Second both teams have some question marks surrounding their rotation. Dice-K is prone to walk hitters and put several runners on base and could be out of the game early, if his start against the Angels is indicative of things to come. Further, Josh Beckett did not pitch well in his start against the Angels because of an oblique injury. Though he should benefit from not pitching in the cold, October air in New England, which Beckett will show up–that is, the one from last year who was lights out, or the one who was inconsistent this past season–remains to be seen.

The Rays too have some question marks. Andy Sonnanstine, combined with his start against Chicago, has thrown 199 inning this year, 69 more than last year’s total (his previous high and only other MLB season), while Matt Garza’s 190.2 innings tossed are 57 more than he threw in each of the past two years combined. While you generally do not expect your starters to go 7, 8, 9 innings deep anymore (particularly in the playoffs), you have to wonder when these two are going to hit a wall. Garza’s 4.73 September ERA could be a sign that the young right hander is starting to fizzle out down the stretch, and neither he nor Sonnanstine looked that impressive against the ChiSox. If these two succumb to late season fatigue, and Maddon has to go to his bullpen early and often, the Rays could be in a bit of trouble as these two are slated for games 3 and 4 in Boston, where Boston was lights out all season long.

KEYS FOR THE RAYS

Get to their middle relievers. The Rays need to keep the game close and get to the 7th and 8th inning guys in Boston’s bullpen. Okajima, Delcarmen, Masterson and Lopez have been good for Boston, but none are strikeout guys who can step into the middle of an inning get out of danger unscathed that often, and none inspire a ton of confidence–Delcarmen in particular has been known to implode after one pitch. If Boston can get the lead to Papelbon the Rays will have a hard time winning. They got to him before, but thinking you can win by getting runs off of him is a sure way to have your season end.

Get the game to your relievers. The Rays bullpen has been very dependable, unlike Boston’s, and can turn a game into a 7 inning affair. Boston got to Tampa’s starters early in some of their match ups, which negates the advantage the Rays have in the pen. The youngsters need to continue to do what they did all year and think damage control. They cannot allow the big inning because their offense is not built to make up ground in a hurry.

Score when you can. Even if they can only manufacture runs, the Rays have to take advantage of the guys that get on base to keep the pressure on Boston and keep the game close. During a 6 game losing skid to Boston in May and June, the Rays were never really in the game as they allowed Boston to get leads early. Further proof of this was the fact the Rays scored 5 runs or more they were 4-1 as they were able to stay with Boston for 9 innings.

Remember, you need 4 wins. The Rays ate pressure up down the stretch, but this is the ALCS and the youngsters and few veterans may start to think about the World Series. As we saw with Cleveland and New York, that type of thinking does not work. To steal one from Yogi, the Series ain’t over until it’s over....particularly against Boston. They have to remain focused and not look beyond what’s in front of them

KEYS FOR THE SOX

Get the ball to Paps. Where the Rays want to see a lot of Lopez, Okajima, Masterson and Delcarmen, the Sox want to limit the middle relievers to 2 innings at the most before number 58 comes into the game. To do that, Dice-K and Beckett need to lead the way and get into the 7th inning. Boston’s pen saw a lot of action in the series with the Angles, and the later in this series they have to over extend your pen, the better.

Score early and often. To negate the bullpens, the Sox need to put the game out of hand early and force the Rays into becoming a station to station team (an offensive philosophy they do not excel at) that can ill afford to take chances on the base paths. Also, by putting the pressure on the Rays, you could start to see some cracks in the armor as the youngsters may start to press a bit.

Split in Tampa. Going to Fenway for 3 tied 1-1 will put an enormous amount of pressure on their two least experienced pitchers, Garza and Sonnanstine. There is always the chance you will not get the series back home, and that will add to the pressure of pitching in Fenway in October.


It should be a great series as these teams battled it out all season long, and I sure each game will be hotly contested. However, while some think this one will be an epic 7 gamer, I think something is going to give and one of these clubs will ride the wave of momentum to a 4-2 series win, and could be over possibly in 5. The Rays have played and succeeded in pressure packed situations all season long, but not they are playing for something–a trip to the Fall Classic. Meanwhile Boston has some injuries and question marks, but they have been there and done that. The Sox can take away any momentum the Rays may get in Tampa because of the 2-3-2 format as neither team played well away from home. If Boston can split on the road, the Rays then turn to two very inexperienced pitchers who will be going up against a guy who closed out the World Series last year and another guys who has been to the post season 7 times since 1998, in a hostile environment.


Boston in 6

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