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AL Division Series Preview

The Red Sox take on the division-rival Rays and the A's face the Tigers for the right to play in the ALCS

Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli broke down the two National League Division Series on Thursday. Now it’s time to size up the ALDS matchups.

(First references to advanced stats accompanied by links to definitions.)

TAMPA BAY RAYS VS. BOSTON RED SOX

(Game 1 tonight at 3:07 ET)

Starting Rotations
Rays
LHP Matt Moore (3.29 ERA, 3.95 FIP)
LHP David Price (3.33 ERA, 3.03 FIP)
RHP Alex Cobb (2.76 ERA, 3.36 FIP)
RHP Chris Archer (3.22 ERA, 4.07 FIP)

Red Sox
LHP Jon Lester (3.75 ERA, 3.59 FIP)
RHP John Lackey (3.52 ERA, 3.86 FIP)
RHP Clay Buchholz (1.74 ERA, 2.78 FIP)
RHP Jake Peavy (4.04 ERA, 3.79 FIP)

The Rays’ top three starters pulverized Red Sox hitters this season. In 70⅓ innings pitched, ALDS Game 1 starter Matt Moore, Game 2 starter David Price, and Game 3 starter/Indians smasher Alex Cobb combined to post a 2.77 ERA against Boston this year, striking out 62 batters, walking only 16, and allowing just a .194 batting average. All told, the Sox hit just .208 against Rays pitchers this year, with a measly .333 slugging average (Boston’s second-worst mark against any opponent this year). None of that made a lick of difference. The Sox went 12-7 against the Rays anyway. They did that by winning six games in the ninth inning or later, racking up three walk-off wins in the process.

You can look at those numbers in one of three ways. Either (1) the Red Sox have a supernatural ability to pull out games late, (2) the Rays bullpen isn’t good enough to tame Boston’s potent lineup, or (3) the Sox caught a few breaks in a small number of games, and Tampa Bay’s rotation should be feared in this series.

There are probably elements of truth to all three theories, or at least the last two, with Boston’s late-game hits a byproduct of their excellent offense. But there are also real reasons to believe that the combination of Moore, Price, and Cobb, plus the Rays’ solid defense (which will be even stronger when David DeJesus starts in left against righties), could pose a challenge for the Red Sox. Despite the threat of the Green Monster, Moore and Price could fare well at Fenway, with Moore limiting the Sox to a line of .102/.170/.204 in two starts and Price striking out 30 batters vs. just three walks over 32⅔ innings pitched. Meanwhile, Price’s first few starts of the season look like an anomaly, with his numbers since coming off the disabled list July 2 more indicative of his Cy Young–winning track — 122⅔ innings over his final 17 starts, with 98 strike outs, 12 walks, and an opponents’ line of .233/.254/.339. We should also consider Boston’s offensive proclivities: a .265/.337/.414 line vs. left-handers, compared to its superior .283/.355/.462 showing against righties. Of course, we shouldn’t go too far with this theory. That .751 OPS against lefties still ranks as the fifth-best showing by any American League team this year. At any rate, the Rays hold the edge here, with Moore, Price, Cobb, and Chris Archer going up against the Red Sox front four.

The size of that gap might not be that big, though. Jon Lester did enjoy a strong finishing kick, allowing three earned runs or fewer in 12 of his final 14 starts of the year, posting a 2.68 ERA over that 14-start span. Clay Buchholz came off the disabled list on September 10, then flashed a 1.88 ERA over his final four starts, including five shutout innings against the Rays. The key will be Boston’s no. 3 and 4 starters, after John Lackey and Jake Peavy both scuffled through September. We don’t want to overdo it with the recency effect, of course. But with Peavy’s strikeout rate plunging after the deadline move to Boston (plus his history of injuries) and Lackey not far removed from being a pitching pariah, any little hiccup raises at least a little concern. One thing we can say: Boston’s starters will be a lot more experienced than the kids the Rays mowed down to get here. Tampa Bay won three elimination games in a row to make it to the ALDS; the three starters they faced had combined for just 50 career starts (hat tip to Providence Journal‘s Tim Britton).

Lineups

Rays
1. CF Desmond Jennings (R) — .252/.334/.414, 112 wRC+
2. 2B Ben Zobrist (S) — .275/.354/.402, 115 wRC+
3. RF Wil Myers (R) — .293/.354/.478, 131 wRC+
4. 3B Evan Longoria (R) — .269/.343/.498, 133 wRC+
5. DH Delmon Young (R) — .260/.307/.407, 98 wRC+
6. SS Yunel Escobar (R) — .256/.332/.366, 100 wRC+
7. 1B James Loney (L) — .299/.348/.430, 118 wRC+
8. C Jose Molina (R) — .233/.290/.304, 69 wRC+
9. LF Sean Rodriguez (R) — .246/.320/.385, 101 wRC+

Red Sox
1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L) — .298/.355/.426, 113 wRC+
2. RF Shane Victorino (R) — .294/.351/.451, 119 wRC+
3. 2B Dustin Pedroia (R) — .301/.372/.415, 115 wRC+
4. DH David Ortiz (L) — .309/.395/.564, 152 wRC+
5. 1B Mike Napoli (R) — .259/.360/.482, 129 wRC+
6. LF Jonny Gomes (R) — .247/.344/.426, 109 wRC+
7. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) — .273/.338/.466, 117 wRC+
8. 3B Will Middlebrooks (R) — .227/.271/.425, 83 wRC+
9. SS Stephen Drew (L) — .253/.333/.443, 109 wRC+

At first glance, this looks like a colossal edge for the Red Sox. Boston led the majors with a .349 on-base percentage and .446 slugging average, scoring 57 more runs than its nearest rival. Meanwhile, the Rays ranked just ninth in the AL in runs scored.

A closer look reveals that the two teams are closer than you might think. Using Weighted Runs Created Plus, a stat that adjusts for park effects (and thus whitewashes Fenway Park’s big offensive edge over Tropicana Field), we find that the Red Sox were still the best offensive team in baseball, creating 15 percent more runs than league average … but with the Rays ranking a solid fifth, at plus–8 percent.

We also recently discussed statistical analyst Ed Feng‘s “cluster luck” (not a typo) theory. A refresher:

Ed Feng, who runs an excellent analytical blog called The Power Rank, sees another gap between the two teams. Comparing teams based on win-loss record can be misleading, since winning teams might, for instance, benefit from a bunch of one-run wins and thus show a relatively weak run differential. As the Orioles showed in their 2012 results versus what happened in 2013, that can be a formula for significant regression toward the mean. But Feng argues that even run differential can be misleading. Certain teams will score more runs and win more games than their fundamental skills would suggest because of a phenomenon called clustering. Simply put, those teams might rack up about as many hits as others, but because those hits get bunched together, they’ll score more runs and win more games. Feng’s MLB Rankings by Base Runs aims to smooth out that noise, assigning a more random distribution to hits and walks for both teams’ pitchers and hitters. By taking that step, Feng argues, you can gain a clearer understanding of a team’s quality, and how it’s likely to fare going forward.

Here’s how baseball’s 30 teams fared this year, ranked from luckiest (teams that scored more runs than expected if their hits and walks were distributed randomly both on offense and on the pitching) to the unluckiest. The number shown here is the run gap:

1. St. Louis: 85.4
2. New York Yankees: 67.4
3. Kansas City: 56.8
4. Baltimore: 41.0
5. Texas: 37.8
6. Atlanta: 36.1
7. Cincinnati: 31.5
8. Cleveland: 31.3
9. Boston: 26.9
10. Oakland: 13.6
11. Arizona: 11.6
12. Miami: 7.7
13. Houston: 6.7
14. New York Mets: -3.7
15. Colorado: -5.1
16. Toronto: -5.3
17. San Diego: -7.0
18. Los Angeles Angels: -9.9
19. Washington: -17.3
20. Milwaukee: -21.9
21. Los Angeles Dodgers: -24.4
22. Philadelphia: -25.9
23. Chicago White Sox: -32.9
24. Pittsburgh: -33.1
25. Detroit: -33.4
26. Minnesota: -37.2
27. Chicago Cubs: -38.2
28. San Francisco: -47.8
29. Tampa Bay: -55.3
30. Seattle: -62.0

Let’s not get too cute with the Red Sox here: They can mash, from their starting nine (the lineup shown is a guess at whom they might trot out against the left-handed Moore in Game 1) to their dangerous bench. But there’s good reason to believe that the Rays offense is considerably better than the middle-of-the-pack runs-scored total they put up this year. For one thing, there’s that run-suppressing environment at the Trop, something that won’t be a factor at Fenway. There’s also the in-season improvement the team made to its lineup, most notably adding Wil Myers once he cleared the Super Two arbitration threshold. Then there’s this run-clustering phenomenon. According to Feng, the Rays left 55 runs on the table that they would’ve scored if their hits and walks had been clustered together more favorably. Here’s a simple example: While Tampa Bay’s numbers with men on base vs. bases empty were very similar, its numbers with the bases loaded — the situation that should net the highest number of runs — was absolutely awful. With three ducks on the pond, the Rays hit a miserable .222, with a .254 on-base percentage and a .325 slugging average. Hit like that over 142 plate appearances and you’re going to screw yourself out of a lot of runs.

It’s unlikely that the Rays have some fatal flaw that renders them impotent with the bases loaded; this is probably just random statistical noise. On the other hand, just because a weird and fluky trend might be due for positive regression doesn’t mean all that luck is suddenly going to turn for the better tomorrow. This is simply to note that these two teams might be closer than the surface stats might suggest.

Bullpens

Rays
Closer: RHP Fernando Rodney (3.38 ERA, 2.84 FIP)
RHP Joel Peralta (3.41 ERA, 3.68 FIP)
LHP Jake McGee (4.02 ERA, 3.41 FIP)
LHP Alex Torres (1.71 ERA, 2.32 FIP)
RHP Jamey Wright (3.03 ERA, 2.89 FIP)

Red Sox
Closer: RHP Koji Uehara (parental consent required to view numbers … OK: 1.09 ERA, 1.61 FIP)
RHP Junichi Tazawa (3.16 ERA, 3.22 FIP)
LHP Craig Breslow (1.81 ERA, 3.60 FIP)
RHP Ryan Dempster (4.57 ERA, 4.68 FIP)
LHP Felix Doubront (4.32 ERA, 3.78 FIP)

The Rays are deeper here, with Alex Torres offering a lights-out, multi-inning option if a starter shows even the slightest signs of trouble in the early or middle innings, with Jamey Wright able to turn potential rallies into double-play balls in the middle innings when other teams might not have quality options. Joel Peralta and Jake McGee offer a quirky but effective pairing, with both doing some of their best work against opposite-handed hitters. Rodney was inhuman last year, and has been merely good this season.

The Red Sox lack that stockpile of strong bullpen arms, with the eighth inning in particular posing about as many problems as a team with both the best record and best run differential in the league could conceivably have. If you believe in head-to-head matchups, though (and hell, we’ve touted them for the Rays’ starters), dig this: Setup man Junichi Tazawa and closer Koji Uejara allowed just one run on eight hits in 20 innings against the Rays, with 24 strikeouts and just three walks. And while Tazawa certainly struggled against multiple non-Rays opponents, Uehara had no such problems. In fact, he delivered one of the most dominant seasons by any closer in baseball history. Given the do-or-die nature of the playoffs, the increased number of available days off in October, and Uehara proving his durability once and for all this season, we could see him come in to try to nail down the last four or five outs of a game, not just the final three.

In short, the Rays have more and better mix-and-match options they can use to navigate through a bullpen-dominated game. But if Boston’s starters can work deep into games with a lead, Tampa Bay is probably screwed.

The Call

The Red Sox won 97 games this year and rolled to the AL East title, while the Rays needed three wins in four days over Toronto, Texas, and Cleveland in Games 162, 163, and 164 just to make it here. Boston has home-field advantage, Buchholz is back and healthy, and recharging for five days since the team’s last game should help other gimpy players get back to full strength, or close to it. Still, that Moore-Price-Cobb trio ranks up there with the Dodgers’ Kershaw-Greinke–any sentient human combo and Detroit’s Scherzer-Verlander-Sanchez crew as the best in the game right now. John Farrell has proven to be a great fit in his first year as Red Sox manager, but no skipper squeezes more out of his 25-man roster than Joe Maddon does. It’s not hard to imagine these two very good, closely matched teams splitting the first two games in Boston, splitting the next two at the Trop, then coming back to Fenway for a Game 5 in which Moore, or more likely Price on full rest, could match up against Lester to decide the series. In that spot, it’d be tough to bet against Price and the Rays. So by the slimmest of margins, in what could end up being the best series of the postseason, we’re picking Tampa Bay. Prediction: Rays in five.


DETROIT TIGERS VS. OAKLAND A’S

(Game 1 tonight at 9:37 ET)

Starting Rotations
Tigers
RHP Max Scherzer (2.90 ERA, 2.74 FIP)
RHP Justin Verlander (3.46 ERA, 3.28 FIP)
RHP Anibal Sanchez (2.57 ERA, 2.39 FIP)
RHP Doug Fister (3.68 ERA, 3.27 FIP)

A’s
RHP Bartolo Colon (2.65 ERA, 3.23 FIP)
RHP Sonny Gray (2.85 ERA, 2.83 FIP)
RHP Jarrod Parker (3.97 ERA, 4.40 FIP)
RHP Dan Straily (3.96 ERA, 4.05 FIP)

A year ago, you could’ve argued that Justin Verlander was the best pitcher on the planet. Now, Clayton Kershaw is the consensus pick. Part of that, certainly, is Kershaw rocketing into the stratosphere. But some of it is due to an erosion in Verlander’s skills — or at the very least, an off year by his standards. His walk rate jumped to its highest point in five years, he lost a couple of ticks off his fastball, and his ERA surged by nearly a run compared to last year’s level. He still had an excellent season. But Verlander wasn’t quite the Cy Young short-list candidate he’d been over the previous four seasons.

No problem. Max Scherzer has leapfrogged Verlander. And now the Tigers’ cup runneth over, with as close to three aces as any team in baseball can claim. Scherzer will probably win the Cy Young this season (even though I have to disagree), leading the league or ranking near the top in several major pitching categories. Had Anibal Sanchez not hit the disabled list in mid-June, he might’ve been the league’s most worthy Cy Young candidate (even though Scherzer’s 21-3 record is more or less unbeatable). Meanwhile, just about every other team would kill to have a fourth starter like Doug Fister, a durable right-hander with impeccable command who keeps his team in the game just about every time out. Getting to Detroit’s starters will be a tall order for Oakland’s hitters.

The A’s will lean on a staff that pitches to contact and relies on a pitcher-friendly ballpark. Sonny Gray struck out a batter an inning in his first 10 major league starts, showing enough to earn the Game 2 call in the series. Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker, and Dan Straily are better described as masters of deception. Colon has defied the odds by throwing fastballs almost exclusively, missing fewer bats than nearly any other AL starter, but still beating the odds with incredible results. Meanwhile, Jarrod Parker might’ve been the biggest Jekyll-and-Hyde starter in the majors this year, posting a 7.34 ERA through his first seven starts, 2.68 over his next 22, and 9.20 in his final three. There are scenarios in which Oakland’s rotation could hold its own in this series. But even if we’re being generous, the Tigers have a big advantage here.

Lineups

Tigers
1. CF Austin Jackson (R) — .272/.337/.417, 107 wRC+
2. RF Torii Hunter (R) — .304/.334/.465, 117 wRC+
3. 3B Miguel Cabrera (R) — .348/.442/.636, 192 wRC+
4. 1B Prince Fielder (L) — .279/.362/.457, 125 wRC+
5. DH Victor Martinez (S) — .301/.355/.430, 112 wRC+
6. LF Jhonny Peralta (R) — .303/.358/.457, 123 wRC+
7. 2B Omar Infante (R) — .318/.345/.450, 117 wRC+
8. C Alex Avila (L) — .227/.317/.376, 92 wRC+
9. SS Jose Iglesias (R) — .303/.349/.386, 102 wRC+

A’s
1. CF Coco Crisp (S) — .261/.335/.444, 117 wRC+
2. 3B Josh Donaldson (R) — .301/.384/.499, 148 wRC+
3. SS Jed Lowrie (S) — .290/.344/.446, 121 wRC+
4. RF Brandon Moss (L) — .256/.337/.522, 137 wRC+
5. LF Yoenis Cespedes (R) — .240/.294/.442, 102 wRC+
6. 2B Alberto Callaspo (S) — .258/.333/.369, 99 wRC+
7. DH Seth Smith (L) — .253/.329/.391, 102 wRC+
8. 1B Daric Barton (L) — .269/.350/.375, 107 wRC+
9. C Stephen Vogt (L) – .252/.295/.400, 90 wRC+

You’re looking at the second- and third-best offenses in the league on a park-adjusted basis. Despite playing in a park that is not particularly friendly to power hitters, Oakland socked the third-most home runs in the big leagues, with four different players whacking 20 or more. This might not be an offense stuffed with marquee names, but there’s lots of balance. The team with the fourth-lowest payroll in the majors racked up the AL’s second-best record by building one of the league’s most balanced rosters. And it did it the hard way, too: Not one of Oakland’s starting nine were drafted and developed by the A’s.

For the Tigers, the big variable is Miguel Cabrera. Battling groin and abdominal injuries, Cabrera still knocked out his share of singles down the stretch, but saw his power disappear. From August 27 to the end of the regular season, he managed just two extra-base hits in 25 games, slugging just .333. The latest news is encouraging, with Cabrera launching balls out during batting practice on Tuesday. But manager Jim Leyland and everyone else say the same thing about the planet’s best hitter: He’s not 100 percent right now. This is a loaded lineup either way, especially with Victor Martinez going nuts after a slow start to the season — .228/.273/.305 through the end of May, .336/.394/.490 thereafter. But if Cabrera is close to full strength, the Tigers will have their full arsenal of mashers to go with that knockout rotation. Detroit is still a worse-than-average defensive team even after the addition of slick-fielding Jose Iglesias. But that might not be much of a problem if they bludgeon other teams with their bats and shut them down with four strike-throwing beasts.

Bullpens

Tigers
Closer: RHP Joaquin Benoit (2.01 ERA, 2.87 FIP)
LHP Drew Smyly (2.37 ERA, 2.31 FIP)
RHP Jose Veras (3.20 ERA, 4.12 FIP)
RHP Al Alburquerque (4.59 ERA, 3.72 FIP)
LHP Darin Downs (4.84 ERA, 3.53 FIP)

A’s
Closer: RHP Grant Balfour (2.59 ERA, 3.49 FIP)
RHP Ryan Cook (2.54 ERA, 2.74 FIP)
LHP Sean Doolittle (3.13 ERA, 2.71 FIP)
LHP Jerry Blevins (3.15 ERA, 3.88 FIP)
LHP Brett Anderson (6.04 ERA, 3.85 FIP)

At the start of the year, the Tigers’ bullpen was a mess. The Jose Valverde reunion gambit failed miserably, earning the Tigers’ piñata of a closer a ticket out after 19⅓ frightening innings. Leyland showed off some of his tactical flaws, tossing Phil Coke into high-leverage situations against right-handed hitters only to discover that Coke’s a lousy bet if he’s not operating as a LOOGY. Leyland still makes occasional mistakes with his bullpen usage, and the Tigers will be without both Coke and hard-throwing righty Bruce Rondon for the ALDS. But the combination of Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly has been terrific in the late innings. It’s a thin middle-relief corps, but that might not matter with the four horsemen in the rotation.

Oakland has three mostly reliable options between closer Grant Balfour and setup men Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle. That’s assuming that Balfour has recovered from a late-season case of the yips, including a four-run implosion on August 29 against these same Tigers. The A’s hold an edge on the bullpen front, but the Tigers’ ability to sort out roles as the year went on makes this a reasonably close race … assuming their starters don’t get knocked out early, anyway.

The Call

The A’s ended the season with a better record, thanks in part to playing a slightly easier schedule that included 19 games against the hapless Astros. Still, the Tigers are the more talented team, with a shutdown rotation that figures to give every team fits, even this very good Oakland offense. If Cabrera is still badly hobbled, this series could get a little more interesting. Otherwise, Detroit looks like it’s in the driver’s seat. Prediction: Tigers in four.

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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